Wednesday, 1 June 2011

One day like this

The dig has started...

…well OK I'm not physically digging anything at the moment (and yes thank you Mr. pedantic I'm obviously typing at this precise moment in time and space) but as far as my situation is presently going, it's more that I'm generally standing in front of a mechanical excavator and two dumper trucks as they surgically remove ploughsoil (at a somewhat alarming rate) revealing long buried archaeological deposits (but hey, who's quibbling?). After another year stuck indoors immersed in lengthy, bureaucratic paper-chases, alleviated only by the occasional bit of teaching / research / discussion with students (or what I like to call ‘proper’ work) and being at home with my family (essential 'downtime'), being on site as opposed to the office is a major breath of fresh air.

A really big dose of fresh Dorset straight-from-the-English-Channel-via-several-fields-full-of-cows air (and without any aeroplane / car / train / human voice to break the silence – well, once the JCB engine has been switched off and the driver has gone home). Just me, a few pheasants, an odd hare (a very odd hare if I’m really honest) and the detritus of four millennia.

This is what archaeology is all about.

Next week, close to 200 students, staff and volunteers will also descend upon the site and that's when the fun really begins...a whole month of uncertainty, discovery and general earth-moveray...I seriously cannot wait. As I stand (or stood) looking out at all the new archaeology emerging, I can't (or couldn't) help but recall what seems to be the perfect Radio 2 song (and which is no doubt voted for in droves by listeners) by the anatomically-specific 'Elbow': "one day like this a year would see me right".

Let the therapy commence.

Archaeo-pedantry no. 24

Someone made the claim (on a TV programme about satellite imagery and Egyptology on BBC 1 last night) that 'Lost Tombs are the Holy Grail of Archaeology' - surely, and without sounding too pedantic about this (always tricky I know), the Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of archaeology......

.....or am I missing something?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Prehistoric hysteria

The man on the ladder gave me a curious look. I was already beginning to regret mentioning that I was an archaeologist. He cleared his throat. "So", he paused for dramatic emphasis, "when did it all begin then?" I grinned. "How long have you got?" He didn't appear impressed at my rather feeble attempt at humour. This was proving tricky. How to explain the distant human past in 5 minutes (the time I estimated his interest would wane significantly)?

Popular understanding of prehistory is murky to say the least. The absence of anything pre-Roman from the school syllabus, and the general misconceptions that exist surrounding this particular period of the human past do not improve the situation. Most people’s view on the period is moulded by popular culture, especially that transmitted by television, cinema and the internet, where pre-Roman communities are often depicted as hairy, club-wielding savages, wandering around a landscape littered with bizarre megaliths and improbable dinosaurs. Neanderthals, woolly mammoths, dinosaurs, standing stones, druids and Celts all inhabit that strange, incomprehensible world before civilisation, often with no clear idea of how, if at all, they originally related.

The view that Britain before the Romans was ‘deeply primitive’, especially when compared with the ‘civilised super states’ of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, is endlessly recycled within modern fiction, daily news programmes, cartoon strips and documentaries. The image of the poor, ignorant, mud-splattered, fur-wearing prehistoric primitive (often with enlarged brow ridges and fearsome drool), hunting hairy animals, eating raw meat and patiently waiting for the civilised world to bring technological advances such as clothes, agriculture, the bow and arrow, pottery, towns, roads, aqueducts, coins and orgies, is undeniably potent.

The fact that it is also totally incorrect does not seem to bother anyone very much.

Even state organisations can often succumb to the stereotype, as a visit to the Stonehenge Shoppe, set deep in a Salisbury Plain-style fuhrer-bunker, will amply testify. Here you can buy postcards, novelty tankards, pencil erasers, ties and other tourist paraphernalia depicting fur-wearing cave men building Stonehenge with the aid of large dinosaurs and overseen by sickle-carrying, beard-wearing druids, .

Against this it is often difficult, if not impossible, to explain how and where particular artefacts (such as the stone axe or iron sword), or sites (such as Avebury, Skara Brae or Maiden Castle), fit in, especially if there is no understanding of the chronology or sequence of human development.

This point was brought home to me recently during an excavation of a Bronze Age ditched enclosure. A worryingly large percentage of visitors to the site seemed reluctant to believe that it could be three or four thousand years old. One visitor asked, in due seriousness, whether it had been created by carbon- or silicon-based lifeforms; another wondered out loud whether the whole thing had been designed to keep out predatory dinosaurs. It's disconcerting to realise that the human past can at times be so misunderstood, for it reflects badly on archaeology as a profession as well as the ability of archaeologists to communicate their ideas to the wider public.

Anyway, I outlined the breadth of human history in Britain to the man on the ladder, emphasising how little we really knew and how archaeology has helped further our understanding in crucial areas such as settlement, religion and burial. At the end he seemed genuinely baffled and I could see that something was clearly bothering him. "No" he shook his head and started to descend. "I mean the tiles....when did they start falling off the roof?"

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What does Europe mean to you?: 2

I love being right, it happens so rarely (well, hardly ever at all if I'm really honest) but with Eurovision, one can seem like a master fortune teller; the most successful of soothsayers. 

If only I'd put money on the outcome - but then it wouldn't work would it?

Macedonia gives maximum points to Bosnia (as do Serbia and Slovenia); Bosnia and Herzegovina award max points to Slovenia; Russia and Turkey to Azerbaijan; Iceland to Denmark; Belarus and the Ukraine to Georgia; Armenia and Azerbaijan to the Ukraine; Poland to Lithuania; Moldova to Romania; Romania to Moldova; Portugal to Spain; Germany to Austria; Norway to Finland; Cyprus to Greece etc. Even the UK got in on the act awarding 12 points to its neighbour Ireland (and oh the anger from the UK media when Ireland failed to reciprocate, awarding full points to Denmark). The only real surprise of the night was 'who would Greece award maximum points given that Cyprus got knocked out in the Semi Finals?' (France as it happened) and Bulgaria giving the UK 12 points.....don't they like Romania any more?

By far and away the best bit was the winner of the unofficial 'Pick a theme song for the 2011 Bournemouth University excavation'. No Moldova, viva Zdob si Zdub, viva the teletubbies on Europe!!

Monday, 9 May 2011

What does Europe mean to you?

So, what does Europe mean to you (well, apart from a dodgy-uberpermed soft rock band from the 80s)? Culture? Democracy? Art? Sport? A faintly surreal music competition? Which Europeans have had the greatest impact upon the world today: Aristotle? Alexander? Marcus Aurelius? Constantine? Bucks Fizz? Abba?

OK, so I'm a fan of Eurovision (or should I say 'the Eurovision Song Contest'). There, I said it. Perhaps it doesn't quite fit with my 'normal' take on music (see Listening section opposite) for the contest is unapologetically colourful, brash and cheesy. But, to be fair, nothing else gives such a clear idea of the state of Europe today; nothing else so restores my utter faith in the wonderful, beautiful ridiculousness of humanity and the human condition; to be honest, nothing else makes me laugh quite so much. Someone (can't remember who) said that to travel the world successfully, you need only to pack an open mind and a sense of humour. With Eurovision you need never need leave the house.

If you want to understand the diverse nature of Europe, its conflicts and commonality; its culture and criminality...then nothing, absolutely nothing, beats the Eurovision Song Contest.

This time next week and it will all be over (bar the shouting and recriminations); the 2011 contest will leave the British press in a state of bewilderment and remorse spouting headlines such as: 'Why does Europe hate us?'; 'Why does the UK have no allies in Europe'; 'Why the UK entry fail AGAIN when it had so much promise”…well it didn’t. Of course it didn’t.

OK so I'm getting ahead of's Monday evening and there's still 4 hours worth of semi-finals to go before the Grand Finale on Saturday; just under five days before the last vote is cast, the result announced and the winner crowned. All to play for then; so how can I be sure that the UK is going to fail to hit the giddy heights of the top 10. How can I be so sure that the British entry will return home to rejection, dejection and ridicule (especially when bookmakers are tipping it to do so well)? Why do I know that there will be another year of agonised soul-searching within the British Press? How do I know that another career is about to hit poop central?

Four reasons stand out:

1) On Saturday 14th May, the UK entry (Blue) will appear in the finals without having to go through all the tedious business of the semi’s.

Why? Well because the UK, together with Spain, Germany, France pay the lion’s share for the competition, wherever it is ultimately held (this year Germany), but it looks as if all four are using Cash for Privilege – Elite Business Class and flaunting it. No one likes someone whom they think is ‘playing the system’. Resentment is not a good way to start a so-called 'friendly' competition.

2) Not playing the semi finals means that few Euro observers have heard the UK song by the time the final commences (well all except us in the UK - we've had to live with the diabolical-Blue-abomination for some significant time). Big disadvantage. The days of playing the song cold for the first time in the final is over. If the song isn’t instantly memorable then it’s lost. Last year Germany's Lena missed the semi’s too, but had a song that was on general release across Europe for a short while before. It had been heard. It was known.

3) Geopolitics – my favourite bit. Of course despite bleatings to the contrary, politics has always played a major factor in the competition. Neighbours vote for Neighbours, friends for friends. Throughout the 70s and 80s Greece always gave the maximum 12 points to Cyprus, and Cyprus for Greece (it will be so again - probably to a chorus of boos and wolf-whistles). Germany always used to award 12 points to Turkey and Turkey used to reciprocate. In case you feel that's underhand, Malta always gave at least 6 points to the UK (even if they were the only voting nation in the entire competition to do so), Portugal to Spain, Norway to Sweden and so on and so on.

The issue has only become MORE obvious with the break-up of the Soviet Union and more prominent political alliances (made more explicit of course by the “you can vote for your favourite BEFORE you’ve heard the song tactic). Now there's not only the 'Scandinavian bloc' (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark) and Aegean mini-block (Greece / Cyprus) but the old-Soviet-bloc (Russia / the Ukraine / Moldova / Georgia etc) the 'Balkan (but NON Greek voting) bloc (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Bosnia etc) and the unpredictable Baltic bloc (Estonia / Latvia / Lithuania). This is of course not as negative at it sounds (Serbia and Bosnia voting for each other a mere 20 years after trying to ethnically cleanse one another has to be fairly good news doesn't it?) but it graphically highlights the way in which the simple 'EU/NATO against the East' divide has fragmented into wholly discreet (but no less powerful) sub groups.

The UK is severely disadvantaged of course, as many have noted for years, for it has no neighbours (who like it) and is not part of a close-knit geographical block. Yes it may be different if England, Wales, Scotland, N Ireland etc were in the competition separately, but they aren't and it isn't.

4) The UK song is NOT an event. It's 4 near middle aged blokes (a man-band?) heaving and singing themselves through a tepid (largely out of tune) dirge.

It doesn’t really matter how popular / unpopular a country is if the song is NOT an 'event', it will get nowhere. Israel memorably won, countering the view that it too has relatively few friends in Europe - and, to be fair, isn't even geographically part of Europe (but then is there an equivalent 'Asian Song Contest?) - in 1998 with the glamorous transsexual Dana International

whilst the Ukraine won in 2004 with Ruslana's sub Xena-Warrior-Princess routine (skins, drums, flames and swords) and so on.

Flashy costumes are no guarantee of success of course (look at Spain's record) and obviously contrived attempts to recreate Eurovision of old (as per last years sub-smurf wackiness of Sieneke from Netherlands) will, perhaps sadly, always fail.

Ultimately you need to create something special. In 2010 the UK sent a 1980s style dance ballad regurgitated from corporateturdpolisher (sorry 'music guru') Pete Waterman. This was music by numbers. A thumpingly unmemorable work out from the bottom of the Hit Factory barrel. A forgotten B side from over 20 years ago. However ‘nice’ and presentable the singer, however polished the performance, it was not an EVENT. Last year's German winner (Lena) was different (at least from a Eurovision perspective). OK she sounded a bit Lilly Allen, but do we not have a Lilly Allen in the UK? Second place went to Turkey's maNga who, instead of the usual belly dance workout, presented a pop industrial / metal combo (are there no industrial metal acts in the UK?).

Had Germany put on Rammstein, they would won easily. Had Slovenia let Laibach (rather than a head-ache inducing folk/rock hybrid), they would have walked it. The 2009 winner from Norway had a jolly face, a set of fiddles and an irritating sing-a-long chorus. The year before Russia was victorious with a singer attempting to avoid a grisly death at the hands of a mad ice skater. A few years before, Finland mopped up with grizzled-mask-wearing-death-metal-combo Lordi.

Nothing surprising here perhaps, but it all worked. Anyone remember the UK singer / song / chorus / costume from the last three years?

No. Thought not.

Go into the semi finals (instead of queue jumping into the final) with an EVENT song, one that stands out from the crowd (but doesn’t mock it – Europe is wary of anything it feels is mocking them) and the UK stands a decent chance. No one thought Germany would ever win again, given it has few political allies in Europe, is not part of a geographical voting block and, like the UK, paid its way straight to the final, but it did just that precisely because it staged a memorable stand-out-from-the-crowd EVENT. Send in Blue, Pete Waterman or any music-by-numbers dance-dirge currently in the UK charts and you will always fail.

Now, where did I put my Killing Joke CDs.....?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dig for Victory

There's too much swearing and general rudeness out there on the web and in the blogosphere (I know this because a nice man from the BBC has just said so). It is a symptom, so I'm told, of indiscipline, poor education and general lack of courtesy in society today. With this in mind, I must apologise for I too am about to use an expletive; a word that for many years, certain within archaeological circles, was considered rude, offensive and thoroughly objectionable (those of a quiet disposition should look away now).


Funny, but like all swear words of the past, this particular example now seems rather tame. Take it from me though, had you used this in polite archaeological society 20 years ago, you would have encountered outrage, shocked looks and, fair to say, some considerable disgust.

Throughout the 1980s, the true (and presumably rather shocking), nature of archaeological excavation was disguised through the use of Archaeospeak (double-speak), verbal camouflage of the highest order which included such gems as: “field evaluation”, “heritage mitigation”, “limited ground intervention” and (my personal favourite) “preservation by record”. Any attempt to “dig a hole” was met with frowns and general disapproval. The maxim that “all excavation is destruction” was repeated by all those in the archaeological profession like a mantra.

All this may now seem rather extreme, but, as with all things archaeological, one must be aware of the context. By the late 1980s, Britain’s urban boom had ripped the heart out of many cities, whilst large numbers of rural sites had been obliterated in the drive to increase food production. So severe was the damage, that many were rightly moved to consider the blanket preservation of our buried past, the worry being that if nothing was done that there would be little heritage left for future generations to enjoy. Excavation, in hindsight, appeared to be destructive, outdated, misguided and downright wrong.

All well and good, and, it is fair to say, that Britain’s heritage has benefited enormously from the enlightened attitudes of bodies such as English Heritage, Cadw, Historic Scotland and the National Trust, but, one must ask, whether the pendulum swung too far. Non-intrusive forms of examination, such as geophysics, aerial photography and surface collection survey ('fieldwalking' to you and me), have all significantly aided the discovery and interpretation of new sites, that is true, but only “limited ground investigation” can answer the intractable issues of dating, phasing and chronology. Only “preservation by record” can reveal the buried evidence and help us truly understand our protected past.

There is now a slight but detectable shift in policy emphasis, something recently demonstrated at Britain’s most famous archaeological monument: Stonehenge. Twenty years ago the thought of an excavation here was inconceivable, and yet under the guidance of first Bournemouth and then Manchester and Sheffield Universities, and with the full support of English Heritage, the National Trust, local druids and other interested parties, that is exactly what has happened.


A whole new series of trenches have been excavated through the hallowed turf of this sacred monument and down into both previously examined and undisturbed features.

So what’s going on?

Well, despite all previous work at Stonehenge, we still have no clear idea of when the primary phases of the structure (such as the bluestone circle) were conceived, nor indeed when they were dismantled nor what form they originally took. Well-targeted excavation is the only real and sensible way to resolve issues as fundamental as these.

The new trenches are by no means huge (the first cut in 2008 was only 3.5 by 2.5m), but as pieces of key-hole surgery they are ideally placed and the preliminary results of all the new projects here have already revolutionised our understanding of this iconic monument. 

Many other sites of National and International Importance around the UK could also benefit from this more enlightened stance concerning conservation status, for large numbers of monuments remain undated and poorly understood. Ultimately, doesn’t preservation seem rather pointless without understanding what, exactly, it is that we are preserving?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

In the air

It wasn't until I was in the air that I remembered I didn't like flying.

Well that's not strictly true: the 'flying' bit, is in itself not too bad; it's the hurtling-back-down-to-earth-at-high-speed-in-order-to-land bit that I really don't like (especially when you are sat staring out of the window at a decidedly flimsy looking wheel that represents the only thing between you and a big hole in the runway tarmac).

Flying is a concept I've never been fully able to understand (aerodynamics not being a major component of my 'academic arsenal') although, to be fair, I've long since got past the urge to stand up mid-flight and scream about the inherent ridiculousness of being a mile above the surface of the earth in an unfeasibly heavy metal cylinder (although, to my shame, that did nearly happen once on a flight to Sicily some 20 years ago). This time I was only travelling between Southampton and Newcastle: just over an hour of flight. Not really enough time to read, eat or sleep. Plenty of time, however, to gaze out of the window down at the UK and repeat the mantra "stayintheair-stayintheair-stayintheair". After a while (12 minutes) this got a bit repetitive and, as we did in fact appear to be staying in the air, I dared to relax a little. Seeing that we were flying beneath the clouds, I began to take in the view. 

Reading the landscape through close observation or analysing the detail on maps is one thing; looking down upon it at great height (and at high speed) is quite another. 'Topographic flattening' creates certain difficulties in interpretation, for, even if you are intimately familiar with a particular town or city on the ground, from the air the layout of streets and buildings can seem inordinately alien. Some structures are instantly recognisable from whatever height (the smoke-belching chimneys of Didcot coal and gas fired power station near Oxford - once voted Britain's worst eyesore - being a prime example);

Others are more tricky. Guess-the-historic-town-and/or-archaeological-monument, however, soon became both an absorbing game and an excellent way of taking my mind off the inherent ludicrousness of powered flight. 

Soon I was happily spotting a whole range of landscape features. There was a ruined abbey, square courtyarded cloisters and church smashed down by Henry VIII's vandals; there was a Roman road, an arrow-straight line through the land still marked (like an unhealing scab) by hedgerows, farm tracks, B-roads and long-distance pathways. A motte-and-bailey castle stood close the centre of a small town, the winding grey streets that encircled it themselves surrounded by the redbrick and tile formality of 1980s suburbia. An ancient farm, rooms open to the sky, stood lonely and dejected at the side of a new urban bypass. Curious dark blotches, appearing bruise-like upon the surface of deeply ploughed fields, hinted at secrets beneath the soil; of buried field systems, barrows, enclosure ditches and long-forgotten storage pits.

I missed the overpriced sandwich trolley as it scuttled past, I missed the offer of having scalding hot tea poured lovingly on my leg and I even missed the announcement that we were finally nearing Newcastle. The sudden, stomach-churning lurch downwards towards a rapidly approaching thin linear stretch of grey tarmac brought me back into the real world. We were landing.

Very fast.

If I am ever required to fly again, I have my default setting of 'abject-terror-reduction': it's called aerial archaeology and it's quite simply wonderful.

If only it could be conducted on the ground.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Extraterrestrial Archaeology: The 'Truth' is out there?

The possibility that there might be intelligent extraterrestrial life is probably one of the most potent concepts in modern popular culture. Large numbers of people want to believe, not only in the existence of aliens, but that those aliens have in some way shaped human development. This desire to ‘believe’ can be traced back to Giovanni Schiaperelli’s identification of canali (channels) on Mars in 1877. 

From that it was but a short step to H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds (1898) with its central theme of aggressive alien invasion. War of the Worlds has since become a global phenomenon, spawning a host of spin-off novels, films, television and radio series. In the western world, fear of the red planet became, during the 1950s and 60s, a metaphor for encroaching communism. With the phrase “watch the skies”, the word “Martian” became a synonym for everything that was alien, strange or to be feared.

The Martian invasions never came and throughout most of the 20th century the red planet remained curiously silent. The first probes sent by the inhabitants of earth were disappointing: Mars was empty and apparently sterile. If there were, or had ever been, life on the planet, it had not left a calling card.

This of course has not stopped people looking for extraterrestrials. The debate over the possible nature of fossil bacteria in samples of Martian meteorite rumbles on, as do discussions over the extent and nature of ancient river systems on the red planet. NASA photographs have been analysed, reanalysed, edited and distorted by a variety of different people and interest groups, some of whom claim evidence for monumental structures on the planet’s surface: pyramids, cities, road networks and, of course, the now infamous “face”.

Of course no one has yet been to Mars in person to collect soil samples and study the local topography. Despite the fact that NASA employs many geologists, biologists and palaeontologists, it does not as yet employ a single archaeologist. This may be because archaeology is the study of dead civilisations, and, to employ such a specialist would, by implication, suggest that there are indeed alien civilisations out there to be found. NASA has so far tried to distance itself from the various ufologists and alien theorists who regularly report evidence for so-called alien life. All the claims for extraterrestrial activity in our solar system have emanated from outside of the archaeological profession and, as a consequence, have been dismissed out of hand. No one, it seems, is yet prepared to examine off-world data, for fear of being labelled a “crackpot”.

As British archaeologist Keith Matthews has noted, there is a curious reluctance from within the scientific community to perform the necessary analysis required to support or refute the claims for alien life. In America, some archaeologists have suggested the creation of a new scientific discipline; namely off-world or exo-archaeology, arguing that professionals must be prepared, not only to respond to claims of extraterrestrial remains, but also to be actively involved in the search for them. Though research and training criteria for this new field of exploration have yet to be defined, there is clearly a need to apply rigorous archaeological methodologies to the study of distant worlds in order to objectively assess the many claims made for extraterrestrial intelligent life. 

In America, the 1996 annual Asimov seminar held in Hamilton, ran a mock training excavation designed to examine “artefacts from a hitherto unknown culture on Mars”. The project was only partly serious, but it raised many important questions concerning just how we humans would locate, investigate and interpret the remains of an alien intelligence.

These are the sort of training programmes and research projects that require serious consideration from within the scientific community. Finding alien life may look easy on Star Trek or Doctor Who, but the reality is that such exo-forms, should they exist, are unlikely to look much like human actors in rubber masks; they are unlikely to speak (or even understand) earth-based languages; they are unlikely to have left nice big monuments that show up clearly on remote satellite photography.

Archaeologists need to commit themselves to the debate, if only to refute the claims made by fringe scientists and seekers of the other. The “truth” may or may not be out there, but if attempts to search for or analyse extraterrestrial life are not set up by those scientists and field operatives working within the profession of archaeology and anthropology, then outlandish and wholly unsubstantiated theories concerning the existence of alien intelligences will continue to proliferate. 

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Found anything yet?

The other day I was asked by a journalist to describe my "most exciting find". It's the kind of question which I usually try to avoid, partly because I don't like bringing the whole experience of archaeology down to the level of a single discovery, but mostly (I suspect) because I can never supply an answer which I think could be termed, in a media sense, as 'exciting'.

There is, thanks I guess in part to the likes of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, a strong belief in media circles that modern archaeologists only pursue artefacts. Not just scrappy bits of Neolithic worked flint or broken Roman pot mind you, but big gold, jewel-encrusted rings, necklaces and bracelets formerly belonging to ancient royalty. Who wants to know about the eating preferences of a 12th century English peasant when you can gawp at some expensive bit of diamond-studded kit? Who wants the imprint of Roman footwear on tile when you can drool over a Roman emperor’s gold plated jock strap (hopefully not whilst he’s wearing it).

The obsession that the media has with rich artefacts and the acquisition of personal wealth, exemplified by the monotonous series of news stories such as “Man out walking Dog finds 10 Million pound Roman coin hoard” or “Woman out jogging finds Saxon ring worth £6 Million!” (and defined in psychological terms as National Lottery Syndrome), may be traced back to the earliest antiquarian investigators in Europe, Africa and the Middle East: in particular, to a comment allegedly made by Howard Carter upon the initial breaking into the antechamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Lord Carnarvon: “Can you see anything?”
Carter: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Certainly the quantity and preservation of artefacts within the ‘King Tut’s’ tomb was amazing, afterall it took well over a decade to simply catalogue everything, but surely archaeology today means more than this? The contents of a tomb ultimately tells us how less than 0.0000001% of the population prepared for the afterlife. What about the ordinary mortals (the lesser elements in society): how did they live?; what did they eat?; what did they believe in?; where did they defecate, copulate or educate? A rich tomb, coin hoard, or votive deposit cannot always be relied upon to provide such vital information about past societies. This does not, of course, concern “The News”. Rarely does landscape archaeology, environmental archaeology, forensic archaeology or any other “archaeology” for that matter, impinge upon a feel-good news story about how someone ‘made it big’ thanks to the chance discovery of a long dead Viking and his loot. 

This of course manifests itself in the ever common question directed to archaeologists in the field: “have you found anything yet?”. Often the reply “Yes we’ve found 670 postholes suggesting the presence of a major Neolithic timber structure unparalleled in this part of the world”, is met with a blank expression, embarrassed silence, quiet clearing of the throat and a “But have you found anything yet?”. Have you found any nice finds, personal objects to link us with those who lived and died in the past? Found any gold / silver / or other precious things?

Sad to say, but when I go to the car mechanics, hairdressers (I don’t get this look by my own efforts you understand) or supermarket, I tend to avoid saying that “I’m an archaeologist” because this is usually guaranteed to provoke the response “Really? What interesting things have you found?” and I just know that the recording of a major prehistoric flint knapping scatter from the chalk hills of southern Britain really does not live up to the expectation that I should have been battling Nazis in the African desert for control of an important Biblical artefact.  

The legacy of Indiana Jones is immense. The ‘trilogy in four parts’ comprising Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Temple of Doom (1984), the Last Crusade (1989) and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) have spawned a plethora of books, television series (especially Young Indiana Jones), radio shows, web sites, computer games as well as generating the expected ‘look’ of an archaeologist (moving away from the pith-helmeted figure of 1950s B movies).

Perhaps the most successful imitator of the good Dr Jones has been Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider games and movies Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the Cradle of Life (2003).

Let’s not beat around the bush here, Croft is a grade A1 psychopath. The computer game has been successful because it taps into to what most game-heads want: adventure, excitement, lots of weapons, mass-killing and a heroine who appears to have dislike of sensible clothes (to be fair the same can be said of Dr Jones who rarely seems able to keep a shirt on his back). Archaeology is here the backdrop, providing the initial drive to the story (“you must find the following”) and the setting (tomb / lost city etc) within which a large quantity of wolves, dinosaurs, alligators and other humans may be mercilessly gunned down.

At the end of the day, both Raiders (Jones and Croft) are about desecration of burial grounds and looting of artefacts. That may sound harsh, but although both may represent a rare case of ‘good guys’ in the realm of the Pop Culture archaeologist (good in that: “Yes so they may both be gun-toting loonies, but hey, at least they’re saving important aspects of our cultural heritage from bad gun-toting loonies”), they are both obsessed with the single artefact above any other concern. The object is the key; information about past societies is irrelevant. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail represent two such ‘things’ that Dr Jones wanted to possess (even he justifies this as saving them from the clutches of the Nazis in order that they may be placed ‘in a museum’).

Take, as a case for the prosecution, the first time we ever meet Indiana Jones, as he searches for a lost South American tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Did the good Dr, as a well-trained archaeologist, record the context of the tomb or the nature of the wall carvings that he encountered? Did he photograph anything of interest? Did he fill in a context sheet, recording the interrelationship of layers? Did he ever take out his notebook and actually write anything in it?

Did he buggery.

I suppose that Site photographer or Artefact Illustrator would both be significantly less interesting games than Tomb Raider, but at least they would be closer to what it is archaeologists actually do.

Monday, 4 April 2011

In a Hole

So there I was at the bottom of a deep hole looking up at the sky.

It wasn't just any old hole of course: it was one that over two thousand years ago had formed a roughly cylindrical pit for storing grain. Once the grain had been removed, the pit had been used to deposit the body of an adult male, rolled in on top of a bed of horse and cow bones; laid down for posterity, or at least until the attentive trowel of an archaeologist had gently lifted him out and away from the probing teeth of a 21st century plough. The pit had once been at the heart of a thriving agricultural community who had on the chalk some 200 years before the arrival of Rome.

We had excavated the pit and emptied its contents, bones and pottery bagged up, soil sieved and sampled, last June, under the scorching summer sun. Now it was spring, and the sun appeared a little less vibrant. In the summer, the whole site had seemed so alive, a community of just over 100 archaeologists, students and volunteers, shovelling, mattocking, drawing, trowelling, wheel-barrowing, talking and laughing. Now the site was empty: a cold rain had swept the interior, earlier snow and ice having broken the exposed surface down into a fine powder. Intrepid weeds had colonised the spaces in-between the backfilled pits and ditches.

For some reason, of all the pits recorded and excavated on site, we had singularly failed to backfill this one. Looking down, on this cold spring morning, I'd seen movement: a frog, helplessly battering itself against the eroding wall of the pit. Without thinking I had jumped in, carefully avoiding the enraged amphibian, and helped it to clamber out (with the aid of my shovel). Movement against the south wall alerted me to the fact that there was another frog down here, and another, and another, and another. None of them seemed particularly pleased to see me, but, having leapt to the rescue of one, I couldn't really abandon the others. Ten minutes later, a full twelve frogs had emerged out of the darkness to bound uncertainly around the mouth of the pit.

It was then that I realised my predicament.

Health and safety is something I teach both at the university and on site. Leaping into a deep, unshored pit that has been happily eroding for almost year, whilst your only other comrades are some 10 minutes walk away at the end of the field, is not something I would normally promote, and it's certainly not something I’d recommend. When the pit had been freshly excavated, the sides were solid, the workforce kitted out in protective gear and with constant above ground support. I possessed neither hard hat nor shoring and, thanks to my previous action with the shovel, was now alone in the dark. I wondered if the frogs had scampered off looking for help (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo had, after all, always found a way to aid his human friends), but I had only known the hapless amphibians for a few minutes: I was not entirely sure where their loyalties lay.

Standing at the bottom of a deep hole with only the clouds above your head to act as a point of reference is a curiously unsettling experience. Today we live in a world so dominated by immense townscapes of steel, concrete and glass, that it is easy to underestimate how disorientating the removal of the familiar can be. Entering the ground, even into the comparative shallowness of an old storage pit, entails a palpable sense of dislocation from the real world. Pits, shafts and mines are ultimately dark, damp and cold, the prehistoric equivalent, perhaps, of sensory deprivation chambers. There are no familiar sounds down there in the deep, what ones there are being muffled and distorted. You can't feel the sun or rain on your face, the wind dies out completely and there are no bright colours or familiar smells. Strange to say, but as I stood at the base of the pit, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm, liberated, as I was, by the concerns of the real world. I had an immense urge to stay there; to lie upon the floor, just as our earlier pit occupant had done, curl up on my side and drift off to sleep. Something at the back of my mind told me that this probably wasn't such a good idea. One slip of the chalk walls and it would be me being recovered by archaeologists when the dig restarted in June.

Using the shovel I made a difficult and thoroughly ungraceful exit from the pit, my last foothold bringing with it a cascading shower of chalk and flint rubble. When I got back to the surface, I found the frogs had long since hopped away whilst my colleagues were still at the end of the track, arguing animatedly about something and nothing.

I took a deep breath and headed off across the field in their direction.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Dangers of Historico-speak

You may not have realised yet, but apparently NATO is currently fighting a war in Libya. Well that’s not strictly true for, according to Washington spin-doctors, American, British and French aircraft are actually engaged in a “kinetic military action.” Well that’s ok then. The exact nature of this action is, at present unclear, although a spokesman has at least been able to confirm that “surgical air strikes have been pacifying hard targets and neutralising enemy combatants”. When asked about casualties, the spokesman noted that “non-operative personnel were confined to forces loyal to the old regime.” 

As you may have already gathered, I find the increased use of verbal camouflage (the euphemism) in official-speak both fascinating and ultimately rather worrying. At times of conflict, politicians and the military employ such tactics not only to disguise the horror of war but also as a way of softening the harsh reality of conflict overseas. Of course there is nothing new in this, for a study of the coin series of any self-respecting Roman emperor clearly demonstrates the power of spin and propaganda: leaders utilising images of ‘peace’ in times of war, ‘victory’ at times of military defeat and ‘unity’ in the midst of civil conflict. I suspect that emperors and their advisers were also pretty good at masking inconvenient truths behind euphemism and verbal camouflage so as to pacify both the senate and people of Rome. 

It occurred to me, during a lecture on the Roman invasions of Britain, that similar tactics could today be used when discussing the ancient past. Perhaps modern euphemism and verbal camouflage could legitimately be employed to aid the interpretation (or mask the true horror) of history. Julius Caesar’s first disastrous foray against Britain in 55 BC could easily be dressed up as an “aquatic military investigation”, whilst the unsuccessful second operation in 54 BC could be described as “troop-based terrestrial probing”.

In a similar vein, Caligula’s abortive attempt to invade Britain in AD 40, when he made his soldiers collect sea shells from the French coast (possibly in order to humiliate them) could be termed as “coastal resource management” or even “marine habitat quantification”

whilst the emperor’s later proclaimed victory against Neptune and the Ocean as “extreme non-militarised sea-deity pacification”.

The Emperor Claudius’ invasion of southern Britain in AD 43 could, furthermore, be described as “surgical strike enhancement in order to upgrade native socio-political control mechanisms" (puppet rulers loyal to Rome). Of course it also had the effect of simultaneously “enforcing regime change” upon those considered to be disloyal or resistant to Rome. Unfortunately, from the perspective of “indigenous personnel” (the Britons) “unquantifiable civilian resources” (people) were, in the course of the invasion “subjugated to extreme pacification” (killed) whilst “domestic neutralisation” (the random burning of native settlements) resulted in unexpectedly high numbers of “non combatant life deprivation” (civilian deaths). On the positive side, such “kinetic military action” (war) undoubtedly led to a period of “permanent post-hostility” (peace). 

I expect that, shortly after the invasion of AD 43, all “indigenous non-combatant personnel” (British civilians), on discovery of an “unexpected period of permanent post-hostility” (peace) had a moment of “positive well-being realignment” (happiness) evidenced by “involuntary facial spasming creating an upward communication interface extension” (a smile)....but then that’s the joy of historico-speak for you.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

‘All archaeologists are evil’. Discuss

So, Dennis the Menace is 60.

For those who are not ‘in the know’, Dennis the Menace (or ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ as he is referred to these days – presumably because ‘the Menace’ sounds a bit ASBO) was (and may well still be for all I know) a cartoon staple character from the Beano, a weekly comic which, before the days of Facebook and Wii, was the highlight of any self-respecting child’s week. Dennis has worn particularly well, in fact his instantly recognisable mop of black hair remains stubbornly free of grey, whilst his red and black striped jumper is still as vibrantly ‘in your face’ as it was in the 1950s. He still lives with his mum and dad, still upsets the local bobby and still gets into trouble with the neighbours. Neither he nor Gnasher, his dog, appear to have aged in the previous six decades, a worrying thought if any archaeologist of the future were to excavate his mortal remains, for he still has the physique of an 11 year old.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I was watching CBBC this morning (don’t ask) when up pops the latest adventure of the be-jumpered tearaway. Before I could hit 'off' on the TV remote, there on the screen was an animated archaeologist, excavating a trench (more like a disordered ‘crater’ if I’m honest) at the end of Dennis’ road. I should of course have been able to guess the profession of this new character, even with the sound down, for he was wearing what any self-respecting archaeologist wears these days: tweed jacket, bow-tie, pith-helmet and Khaki coloured shorts (with long, knee-length socks). This is how all archaeologists dress: this is our uniform; our regulation outfit…isn’t it?

Archaeologists appear with surprising regularity in the world of television; in fact the character, personality and career-path of the televisual archaeologist has become so well defined within western culture, so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness that the stereotype is instantly recognisable, sometimes comical and, just occasionally (at least to those who consider themselves to be REAL archaeologists) vaguely unsettling. The TV archaeologist is always eccentric, upper-class, fashion unconscious and socially inept. Pith helmets and khaki (or other forms of quasi-military camouflage) are de rigueur, sometimes topped off with either tweed or leather jacket. Occasionally they may also have a whip.

Interestingly, no one has ever felt it necessary to ask why archaeologists require unceasing quantities of camouflage, though presumably, whilst on expedition, they really don’t want to be seen by either rival archaeologists (who may steal their ideas) or members of the public (who may ask embarrassing questions). The pith-helmet and shorts, both covered ancient dust, are a fashion stereotype not just of the archaeologist of course, but also of the colonial explorer in general. It is the archaeologist, however, who has kept the pith-helmet-as-fashion-accessory alive into the 21st century. If anything, this particular piece of designer headgear has now become the lazy shorthand for the archaeologist and general ‘searcher of antiquities’. Put such a hat upon a televisual, cinematic or cartoon character and the implication is clear: ‘Adventure’, ‘Exploration’ and ‘Excitement’, possibly combined with a liberal dollop of ‘Treasure’.

Within this world of the curiously-attired adventurer, there are only a very limited number of stock (male and female) characters that the fictional archaeologist MUST conform to. Sadly none of them are very pleasant:

First there is the archaeologist driven by a single goal, considered mad by some, who will, thanks to their discoveries, unleash a curse upon all humanity, perhaps even deliberately to get their own back upon fellow academics who ignored / overlooked / sneered at their work for so long (“ha ha ha!”);

Then there is the archaeologist motivated solely by greed (the treasure seeker), who, in the course of their quest for lost Egyptian loot, will awaken a huge, lumbering, bandage-swathed monster to threaten all of humanity;

Thirdly, there is the gun-toting, hard drinking ‘hero’ / ‘heroine’ who pretends to be “in it” for the purist of reasons (protecting items of the cultural heritage from other alcoholic, gun toting ‘heroes’), but who is clearly motivated by the ‘great discovery’ which will boost their standing and who, in the course of their work, will undoubtedly unleash something rather unpleasant upon themselves (usually in the form of a sudden and extremely grisly death);


Lastly there is the plain, and, if I’m honest, the ever-so-slightly seedy academic with an abiding and incomprehensible love of obscure Byzantine ceramics who prompts contempt and boredom from his / her colleagues but who ultimately unleashes something unpleasant upon their immediate circle through the pursuit of knowledge (an indigestible 32 volume critique on the importance of Norse toe-clippings in 10th century Yorkshire). 

So clear-cut have these figures become, that most broadcast serials or soaps, usually at a time when they are searching for a supposedly ‘new idea’, will often latch on to, and whole-heatedly embrace the character of the pop culture archaeologist, further enforcing the stereotype. If you doubt this at all, just watch such programming stalwarts as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, The Avengers, Doctor Who, Star Trek (in all its incarnations), Bone Kickers, Coronation Street, MI High, Lovejoy, Sliders, Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, even, heaven forbid, Scooby Doo. Look around and see the stereotype everywhere. 

Pretty much all the archaeologists that appear on the screen (both TV and cinema) are thoroughly nasty and wholly unscrupulous tomb raiders; the doom-bringer / curse-invoker is the instantly recognisable stock character, even in something as outwardly inoffensive as Dennis and Gnasher. Archaeologists, and those actively engaged in the pursuit of the past, may like to view themselves as public servants or (in some extreme cases) as heroes bringing the dead back to life, but the media continue to take this rather literally. Archaeologists are the villains: they are the ones tampering with forces that they really do not understand; they are the people who raid the tomb, irrespective of the wishes and warnings of the local population, awaken the dead, activate the curse and bring down some supernatural nasty upon the world. Ultimately it is left to others to clean up the ensuing mess, destroy the curse and put the monster back in its box.

It is perhaps a sobering thought for those of us involved in archaeology today that our pop culture equivalent is systematically portrayed as the villain, the evil eccentric who MUST be stopped.

Archaeologists are the bad guys: should we be worried?

Friday, 25 March 2011

Studying the Passed

Ever stopped to think about poo?

As an archaeologist, I find myself constantly dealing with waste. Waste comes in many forms, for example discarded flint, broken pottery, smashed glassware and half-eaten food remains. Studying ancient rubbish, contrary to how it sounds, is actually quite useful because it can tell us what ate, what they ate off, what they ate with, how they lived, how they died, what their belief systems were and so on.

Unfortunately, one type of human waste product is rarely considered by archaeologists or historians: excrement. Perhaps this is because of the taboos that surround discussion of what is, apart from the desire to mate, one of the most basic of human activities. Perhaps it is due to an almost Victorian-style desire to suppress any thought of poo. Perhaps it is the very words used to describe the act of defecation that are the problem (it is usually impossible to mention words such as poo, poop, crap, turd, do-do, dump or number twos, without an accompanying ‘Sid James-style’ guffaw). As a consequence, excrement is often not treated as a subject worthy of serious study.

This is a shame because the act of defecation is one that, together with birth, eating, drinking, reproducing, breathing and death, links all life on earth. Everyone defecates. Everyone in history (even Queen Victoria) has defecated. Though we may not choose to acknowledge the fact, pooing is important. Our stools could, for example, help those in the future understand how healthy we really were. Where we poo, the taboos that surround the act of pooing, the architecture that we construct to hide those engaged in the act of defecation and the multitude of ways in which we dispose of the end product, can tell us more about the state of society than any book, newspaper or other historical document.

Archaeologists, historians and other guardians of our past are, however, often unwilling to discuss such basic human functions, preferring instead to grapple with seemingly weightier topics such as “peer-polity interaction spheres” or “sociopolitical geographies” (Archaeospeak). These are, incidentally, exactly the same topics that visitors to an ancient monument or listed building are NOT all that keen to find out about. Why be told about the infrastructure of Roman civil administration when you can find out how Roman soldiers wiped their behinds (with sponges soaked in dilute vinegar so we are often told, though the consequences of such an action on a private place do not really bear thinking about)?

Where the potential of toilets and excrement to inform has been realised, the results are often startling. Who can forget the sight (and, for that matter, the realistic smell) of the poor man straining over a pit,

or the human coprolite displayed in all its glory, both at the Yorvik Viking Centre at York?

What about the medieval sentry cheerily defecating in a corner of Castle Rushen in Castletown on the Isle of Man?

Few recreations of the early medieval period are so evocative as these. I am told that the York and Castletown displays are the most popular (they are certainly the most memorable) aspects of each of these visitor attractions.

Discovery of apparently primitive toilet facilities in an ancient monument or listed building can help to reassure us that “things are certainly better now” than they ever were in the past. Beyond the novelty value, however, such places provide a more tangible link with the past (or passed). The acknowledgement that everyone in history defecated somehow makes these people seem more real. More human even. Cleopatra may have been the Siren of the Nile, but she defecated just like everyone else. Alexander the Great was driven, every morning, by a natural force greater than his desire to conquer the known world.

The act of defecation links the past to the present perhaps more strongly than any other human activity. People in the past may have believed different things, worshipped different gods, worn different clothes, spoken different languages, but they all pooed. Just like us.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

History Matters

The philosopher George Santayana is probably best known today for his observation that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

It’s a powerful and thought-provoking statement, but also one which also goes frequently unheeded.

Early on in his presidency, George W. Bush, for example, was advised to stop calling for “a crusade” against terrorism on the basis that given the loaded nature of the word, it might just make a bad situation a whole lot worse. In Afghanistan, it has recently been suggested that, with the hindsight of history, especially the rather disastrous military campaigns of 1839, 1878 and 1919, that British troops should cease telling the locals that “we are British not American” as that won't necessarily win any friends. 

In Britain, there is a tendency to treat history as a series of interconnected and sometimes occasionally interesting stories, most of which ultimately have little direct bearing on our lives today. In other parts of the world the distinction between past and present is more blurred, historical events being continually discussed, consulted, examined and nurtured as if they happened yesterday. Not everyone, it seems, views the past as being distant, alien or irrelevant.

This is why schemes such as the, now sadly defunct, “History matters – pass it on” campaign, launched in the UK during 2006, represented an intriguing, exciting and innovative development.

The campaign was designed to raise “awareness of the importance of history” encouraging public involvement and building “interest and support in Heritage”. The organisers and founding members, including diverse individuals such as Stephen Fry, Bill Bryson, David Starkey and Tony Benn, urged people to show their support and share their views online

Unfortunately, interest from the national media was ultimately limited, the most significant coverage going to the first results of a MORI poll that indicated that 73% of the British population was interested in history, compared to only 48% in football and a mere 25% in celebrities. This, of course, gave rise to the headline “More People care about Henry VIII than David Beckham”, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There can certainly be no doubt that public interest in the past is growing year on year. What worries me, however, is the collective amnesia that surrounds key historical events (such as the slave trade) and the excessive glorification of others (such as the Second World War). Turn to YESTERDAY (formerly UK TV History), the free-screen digital channel, or HISTORY (formerly the History Channel) and you can happily gorge on a diet of seemingly relentless World War II documentaries like Battleplan, Gladiators of World War 2, Secrets of World War Two, Killing Hitler, Churchill’s Bodyguard, Stalin’s moustache, Himmler’s underpants (ok, I made the last two up but you get my point).

World War II represents a critical point in human history which should never be forgotten (as indeed does World War I), but do we need continuous in-depth (and largely repetitive) coverage? The World at War, a series narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier and first broadcast in 1974, was the definitive documentary on the war, its causes and aftermath. OK so it is now   a little dated and some of the key ‘facts’ have been shown, thanks to the release of previously secret government documents, to be different to the ‘official version’, but it is factual, authoritative and thoroughly chilling in detail. It is unflinching and utterly unremitting in the message that war is hell.

It has never been bettered.    

On the main channels, TV documentaries and period dramas seem currently to revolve endlessly around the English monarchy, especially the Tudor dynasty, with the callous,, bloated, opportunistic bully Henry VIII and the self-seeking, PR-mad Elizabeth I taking centre stage. History matters, yes, but not just the official, air-brushed “greatest-hits” history of Britain’s leaders. Better to see more of the neglected alternative perspectives, counter-cultural viewpoints and the stories of the unknown, unwashed and thoroughly down-trodden. Better perhaps to trawl back further into the past as well, for things were happening in Britain way before Henry VIII trashed his first monastery.  

When the History Matters campaign was launched over five years ago, few at the time commented on the relevance of a report published by the Culture Media and Sport Committee, entitled Protecting and Preserving our Heritage. This squarely criticised the UK government for putting Britain’s history at risk. The report concluded that “if the Government really cares about the historic environment, it must give English Heritage the money and the political support to enable it to play a more active part in aiding repair”. The substantial decline, in real terms, of funding to English Heritage as identified in the report was nothing short of scandalous, and yet the scandal remain largely unreported, despite it exposing the former Labour government’s “heritage protection regime”, an intended super register of all protected monuments, buildings, structures, battlefields, parks and gardens, as little more than a calculated (some might add cynical) public relations exercise.

National bodies like English Heritage, Cadw and Historic Scotland need far more significant financial, political and public support if the irreplaceable archaeological and historical resource of England and Wales is to survive into the 21st century. Given the record, to date, of the Conservative Liberal Democrat (ConDem) coalition and their misconceived ‘take a hatchet to the arts’ spending review, this sadly appears unlikely to happen anytime soon.

History STILL Matters…..pass it on.