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.