Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Numbers are your enemy

If there's one thing I've learnt in life it is to avoid, wherever possible, all forms of counting. Numbers confuse, numbers irritate, numbers are, let's face it, the cause of the current financial global catastrophe (numbers create banks which create bankers which, in turn, create banking collapse – an oversimplification, I guess, but one which I feel is nevertheless at least partially accurate). Numbers generate greed; their absence establishes poverty. Numbers are, therefore, intrinsically evil...aren't they?

This may be why I'm ultimately rather hopeless when it comes to money. On the rare occurrence that I find myself actually in a shop AND in possession of cash, I'll try and use notes at the point of transaction, allowing the cashier / sales assistant to calculate the change for me. Cowardly? Perhaps, but counting on fingers (and sometimes toes) at the front of an ever-increasingly irate queue of customers is not a particularly happy experience....defeated by low denomination coin of the embarrassing.

I find that numbers are, in my chosen field of work, by and large an unnecessary irrelevance. Yes there are some archaeologists who love numbers; who will light up at the thought of calculating statistics for Roman amphorae sherd assemblages or who will grin in a heightened state of ecstasy when asked to quantify flint debitage.

I am not one of them.

There is no beauty, that I can see, in numbers; the same digits repeated endlessly (pointlessly) into infinity (and beyond). Words have meaning; words convey mood; words possess an endless poetic beauty. Numbers just sit there: squat, angry, threatening, abusive and unchanging; forever challenging you to trial by mental arithmetic. Numbers are evil.

I fail to be impressed whenever numbers are corralled and forced into the field of archaeology, especially when the intention appears solely to be to impress (the weak-minded). Take, for example, Silbury Hill, the largest 'man' (or woman) made prehistoric earthwork in Europe - surely that fact is impressive enough?

Apparently not, for, as any tour guide will be happy to tell you, the mound took some "18 million man-hours" (and I defy anyone to say what a 'man-hour' is, especially in prehistory - did people work till they dropped? Did they have regular lunch breaks? Two days off for every five worked? Religious holidays? Overtime?) to build, from which, I'm reliably (and repeatedly) told we may calculate that it took "500 men working continuously for 15 years" - but what, I hear you shout about 1,000 men - would they take a corresponding 7 and a half years? (and what, for that matter, about 4,000 men? or 8,000 ???). '18 million man hours' certainly sounds impressive, but what if you had 18 million men working on the project, would Silbury have only taken an hour to put together (or half an hour with a mere 36 million people)? Probably not: 18 million labourers in one place does seem improbable, especially as they would undoubtedly have been tripping over each other, getting in each others way, queuing for the toilet facilities (not to say stealing each other's cheese and pickle sandwiches), but to me it sounds no less ridiculous that saying that it took 18 million man hours (or 500 men 15 years) to build the 'hill' as we see it today.

Or how about this then: did you know that Avebury is the size of 10 football pitches? Amazing. Actually, this had never really occurred to me before (probably as I have no idea of just how big (or small) a football pitch really is - never having seen or been on one). This particular 'incredible' fact is therefore, to me, slightly less than gob-smacking. Indeed, I wonder, unless the 'football pitch' is the recognised standard of measurement in the British Bronze Age, then I fail to see its significance when discussing the size and scale of stone circles or henges. How about Cricket / Tennis / Golf...what about bowls, boules, bocce or bullfighting? Do any of these sports get a look in with regard to the quantification (and comparison) of scale in ancient monuments?

The (possibly erroneous) belief that hunter gatherer societies did not possess complex systems of counting for the quantification of prey or possessions, preferring only to count up to 'two', everything thereafter simply being referred to as 'many', is something which I find (whether true or not) hugely comforting. “How many pieces of worked flint did you find in this trench?”; “Many”; “How many post holes comprised the outer ring of the roundhouse?” “Many”; “How many years have you had an innate dislike (and disregard) for numbers?”; “Many”.


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Attack of the Headless Horror (lessons in lecturing no. 47)

So there I was watching the latest episode of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated (Attack of the Headless Horror) on the CBBC Channel...(and I realise that this entry hasn't opened in quite the dramatic way that I'd hoped, but I'm going to push on regardless and hope no one noticed)...and was immediately taken by this week's guest character Rick Spartan: adventurer, explorer and transcontinental archaeologist.

In the opening scene, Spartan was glimpsed energetically hacking his way through dense Amazonian vegetation, struggling manfully towards a previously undiscovered South American pyramid (and OK so it turned out to be [SPOILER ALERT] a disused film-set cleverly modified by his wife in a complex, ingenious, devious and, perhaps, ultimately rather deranged, plot intended to scare her husband out of his archaeologist adventurer life-style, which kept him away on fieldwork for months, but as he didn't realise this at the time [despite the obviously wooden scenery and set design] and she had obviously done such a good job, we can perhaps forgive them both).

Rick entered the pyramid (heroically) cleared the tomb (disrespectfully) only to be scared off at the last minute by a headless warrior spirit with a stomach face (bizarrely).

Cut to an American college where Rick, now settled back in his normal day job (although curiously he evidently has not had sufficient time to wash nor change out of his, by now no doubt rather soiled and sweaty, expedition gear) lecturing to a class of US teens (all listening in rapt attention):

Rick: "listen up - I don't know much about if you want to know what a spleen is go read a book".

Good way of starting a lecture. Assertive (admittedly to the point of being quite aggressive) but also truthful and informative (although clues as to which particular spleen-related books were being hinted at here would probably have helped the class do some background research - perhaps he should have produced a list of 'further reading' - Spleens: a definitive bibliography?)

Rick: "but if you want to know how to escape the clutches of an 800 pound sumo wrestler who's trying to put a poison dart in your back, then you're in the right place"

Excellent - instantly moving on to what you know (research-informed teaching I think they call it) melded with the occasionally semi-surreal (ideal for comic effect or if you want to keep people's attention).

Long silence (warning! - suggests either everyone is shocked, asleep or bored).

Rick "OK, class dismissed"

Good, don't overrun - too many long anecdotes can weaken the message or obscure the central point of your talk (and always end with them wanting more)

Student (nervously): "er....but we've got another 45 minutes left"

Dissent. Must be crushed immediately.

Rick (shouting): "I said CLASS DISMISSED"

Continued and reinforced assertiveness. Good.

Panic as 46 students flee the lecture theatre (there are health and safety issues here I'm afraid, especially as everyone is clearly running in the corridor. Also, as far as time and management studies are concerned, if the college is anything like a UK University, there will undoubtedly be someone with a clipboard timing the lecture and observing that a whole 45 minutes of heating, lighting and valuable air went UNUSED even though it had clearly been booked, allocated and paid for by the college authorities, an oversight that can only truly be rectified by the deduction of an equivalent sum from the lecturer's own fee).

In conclusion, despite the rather chaotic ending, this was a pretty effective lecture. Short, direct, to the point and (undoubtedly) memorable. What more could any student want (well, OK perhaps a few more facts or something that could usefully be employed in an exam)? 

It struck me, however, that this was not the type of public performance that one usually sees from our most popular of popular culture archaeologists. One can only think back to Henry Walton (Indiana) Jones (Jnr), who had a rather curious lecturing style, very much at odds with his alter ego all-action adventurer (or his 'weekend job' as I like to think of it). Previews of lectures glimpsed in both the 1930s and 50s showed that, despite being factual and informative (and I must one day congratulate the screenwriter who crammed so many genuine archaeological references into such a short space of celluloid), Dr Jones's lectures in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "The Last Crusade" and "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" were all curiously monotone affairs: chalk and talk with the emphasis on excessive talk (and if he'd had a beard he would certainly have been mumbling into it). But, I guess, that helped define the extreme nature of his later fieldwork-related Clark Kent / Superman-style transformation: glasses and tweed jacket off, hair ruffled, stubble instantly sprouted before a dramatic 'up up and away'.

The same could be said for poor old Professor Horatio Smith in the 1941 Film "Pimpernel Smith", where the inordinately dull lecture by the (apparently) socially inept academic archaeologist is merely a way of effectively masking the 'derring-do' 'have-a-go' hero who spends his sabbaticals bravely extracting those in peril from the clutches of the Nazis.

As I have yet to battle biblical relics from gun tooting totalitarian psychopaths, nor rescue political prisoners from fascist regimes, nor even indeed loot the gold from a curse-laden South American pyramid, I guess I have no reason to hide an exciting adventuring alter ego behind impenetrably obscure, lengthy and inordinately factual lectures..... what's my excuse?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Music for the Masses

Happy Birthday New Musical Express....60 today.

I have to admit that, although I have (in the very distant past) bought multiple copies of the NME (though as my youth was so long ago I think I'm justified in no longer following 'youth culture') I was never a huge fan of the paper. To me the NME was always the ENEMY...especially where preferred alternative bands were concerned. From my point of view it was always SOUNDS or Melody Maker, now both sadly defunct, which led the way in (relatively) objective (and entertaining) news and reviews and informative pieces about the underground, alternative and just plain weird.

The NME was always too right-on for it's own good, too much about attitude and with no real heart. OK so the NME was the first to feature a pop chart, and one of the first to recognise the punk scene, but it also championed, at various times, psychedelia, prog rock and 'Madchester' (amongst many crimes too numerous to mention) AND, in the most damning indictment of all, at one stage had BOTH Tony Parsons AND Julie Birchill writing for it.

SOUNDS, Melody Maker and (very occasionally) the NME were, however, all essential weekly elements in a world before the internet or MTV (if you can believe such a place ever existed), bringing the innocent minds of Britain's youth to new concepts such as the Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Age of Chance, Gaye Bykers on Acid, Einsturzende Neubauten, Dead can Dance, Cabaret Voltaire, Nitzer Ebb, Die Krupps, Nirvana, Die Toten Hosen, Siousxie and the Banshees, Foetus, SPK, Front 242, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, the Damned,  Portion Control, Pop Will Eat Itself, Joy Division, Diamanda Galas, Fields of the Nephilim, Laibach, The Leather Nun, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy, Nine Inch Nails, the Young Gods, Pigface, RevCo, Severed Heads, Hula, Swans, Throbbing Gristle, Test Department etc etc.....

Of course I still know what the first record that I ever purchased was (together with my brother as neither of us could then afford it independently) and yes I still own it (though by rights it should still be shared between us I guess) and no it wasn't inspired by anything that either of us had read in the NME or other associated papers.

It was, for the 'record':

'BBC Sound Effects no. 19: Dr Who Sound Effects'
(an album by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop bought, in 1978, for the princely sum of £1.99)

......not sure this will ever appear in my much-imagined episode of Desert Island Discs, but looking again at the track-list, which contains such gems as "The Central Control Room In Exillon City", "Metebelis III Atmosphere", "Styre's Scouting Machine (Approach, Stop, Search, Depart)" a selection of sci-fi weaponry (including three blasts of a 'Gallifreyan Staser' and two from a 'Fission Gun') and (my own personal favourite) "Atomic Reactor Runs Wild" (always a great hit at parties), I am transported back to more innocent, sepia-tinted times.

Anyway, 'Happy Birthday' NME (1952-2012), but, more importantly, lest we forget, RIP Melody Maker (1926-2000) and RIP SOUNDS (1970-1991).

We shall not see their like again.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


Can I just reiterate....dinosaurs have nothing to do with archaeology....repeat: they are not archaeological, and (just to clarify) are not found on archaeological sites, and (to be specific) are not uncovered by archaeologists using archaeological tools to eventually be placed reverently in an archaeological museum with 'other' archaeological finds....


Whilst, as a person, I am not in any way disinterested in the average Brachiosaur or Triceratops (as much as I am not in anyway disinterested in, say, thin crust four seasons pizza or chewing gum) - I do not possess what one could, in anyway, describe as an expert view on our fossiliferous friends. I am not palaeontologist. I am not a geologist.

Archaeology is, by definition, the study of human material culture. Now, just how far back into time one can push the rather fluid definition of human, is, I'll safely admit, a thorny and largely unresolved issue BUT what constitutes humanity itself is head, two arms, two legs, human face, dangly bits (in different assortments), culture, religion, war, roast dinner and so on.

Dinosaurs are not human. They may well have had organised forms of society; they may have possessed language; they may have worked in dinosaur department stores and had only one day off a week (barring summer holidays / Christmas), which they spent hung over and / or celebrating in dinosaur church, but they were NOT human in the sense that we are human and therefore, as an archaeologist, I possess no opinion on their life-span, diet, skin colour, mating habits, forms of communication, forms of defecation, forms of transportation, forms of teleportation etc.

I am mildly not un-disinterested in today's news that the jaws of the Tyrannosaurus Rex were "the most powerful of any animal that has ever lived" (thank you BBC News and all the people subsequently who called / emailed or accosted me in the corridor to tell me this before asking me what I thought and who, then, seemed somewhat peeved when I said "wow" and "really?" and finally "actually, so what?" I'm sure it's all great news for Palaeontologists, fossil-hunters, geologists and dino-specialists the world over. To me it is of only passing interest. It does not 'fire me up' / 'enthuse / inspire me' / 'grab my weasel' etc.

In fact, within minutes of being told, I was already thinking about four seasons pizza and chewing gum.