Thursday, 31 May 2012

What does Europe mean to you: 4

It's been decided.

Forget who won (or indeed who lost - though that seems rather difficult for the British Press who are in the middle of their annual whinge against the rest of Europe), no the important thing is who won the prestigious title of Official Eurovision Site Song for the BU Durotriges Big Dig 2012.

It was a tough call, but here are the results (in reverse order)

6)  Albania - an exquisite slice of screaming from the rope-haired Rona Nishliu and Suus This really doesn't grow on you (and if it did you'd try and cut it off). Wonderful.

5) Austria (who should have won purely for their name - Trakshittaz), and their infuriatingly catchy Woki mit deim Popo, a cheery ditty concerning two middle class white Austrian boys and their new found interest in ladies didn't get past the Semi Finals, but an epic slice of Eurovision nonetheless.

4) Israel - Izabo with Time - wonderfully inane and beautifully insane. Didn't get into the final either, being knocked out in the semi finals...

3) Russia - well, what can I say that no one has already? Six Grandmothers (one of whom - the ringer I presume - was only in her 40s) singing and gyrating to a bread oven. Nothing in the world can prepare you for this...

2) Turkey - could anything beat the man-ship / cape-boat Can Bonomo from the Bosporus? The lyrics alone ("My ship is full of hope / searching for your bay") were enough to snatch victory, even without the cape-wearing sailors (do sailors normally wear capes?).

BUT....well you guessed it. I would perhaps cry 'fix' if I wasn't so scrupulous in ensuring that no song had a pre show hearing and no money changed hands (sadly):

1) Moldova - Pasha Parfeny and Lautar - the outright winner (I'm just a sucker for those Moldovan trumpets I guess). "You haven't seen before how looks the trumpet", well no, Pasha, the total absence of a polished brass instrument on stage during your performance of this upbeat ditty means that, for most of Europe, we are still waiting to see 'how looks the trumpet', but whatever the case, it certainly seems popular with the ladies.

So the peasant-evicting, state-torturing, oil-burning, media-gagging, skull-crushing, assassination-approving government in Azerbaijan was not toppled, but at least everyone now knows where it is (....hey, it's a start). Perhaps least surprising of all was the position of the UK entry (second to last). Apparently, according to the British media, this was due to it going first in the four hour long show (conveniently forgetting the contibution of the song, the lyrics, the singer and the fact that it was, after all, the UK). 

No matter – congratulations Pasha, despite your showing in the final (a respectable 11th place), you are our official mascot-theme for DBD 2012.

Now, let the digging commence....

Monday, 21 May 2012

No decorum in the forum

I don't speak Latin.

I felt I had to clarify that point before I proceeded any further. Sure, as an archaeologist I can translate the odd Roman inscription (but it's all fairly formulaic stuff and very different from having a conversation with a dead Roman - if that were in anyway possible). In fact, to be honest, I don't really speak any other language (alive or dead) all that well. Ok I have a passing acquaintance with German, and I can order drinks in Russian, French and Italian (and at a push Spanish and Greek) and, some could (plausibly) argue that, in any case, my English isn't all that great (thanks for that Comprehensive school education), but I digress....

..the reason I mentioned my failings in ancient languages is that, although I only know a bit of Latin, I feel (unnaturally) angry whenever I hear 'borrowed' (stolen / hijacked) words being mangled (mashed / squished) into English (worse when those actually doing the mangling are from the political / banking / teaching elite - the sporting world does it as well, to be fair, but then my expectations here are never very high in the first place).

Today, for example, I've heard individuals discussing, on both radio and TV, the various consortiums vying for access to the Olympic stadiums once 2012 has come to an end. Apparently internet forums are rife with speculation. Am I the only one shouting 'Stadia', 'Consortia', 'Fora' at the radio like a man with an ancient and rather grammar-based form of tourettes (or worse like someone who is six olives short of a dinner party)? 

I know this is not Latin "as she was spoke", but I feel suitably disturbed enough to write an open letter to those in authority:

"Dear British Olympic Committee. 

Having heard the discussions this morning concerning which consortiums are planning to buy the various Olympic stadiums, I must add to the debate currently raging like bacteriums across all the internet forums and say that I hope the gymnasiums do not get recycled as aquariums, crematoriums or souvenir selling emporiums (otherwise I shall come down to the Olympic auditoriums and bash together all your craniums), for these should all stay as stadiums and gymnasiums for at least the next few millenniums".

Now excuse me, I feel I need a lie down.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

What does Europe mean to you?: 3

And so it begins again....has it really been a year?

The great machine of Eurovision is awakening and readying itself once more for action - and this time it should be more interesting than ever. Ok, so the cheese factor will (I hope) be high and the unintentional hilarity of the tunes / lyrics / costumes / presenters / voting regimes will be immense, demonstrating, as nothing else really can, the dark heart of the European Superstate.

This year, of course, there is the added bonus of how an austerity-hit Europe will cope. Will there be any protest songs? Will Greece attend (or more importantly will they give their favourite nation (in their least-favourite-nation poll) Germany any points at all)? And what of Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy - will they set out to punish the Euro (and Angela Merkel) through the Eurovision votes? Will France punish itself? Will the Euro bailout controversy smash (or strengthen) the traditional Baltic / Scandinavian / Balkan voting blocks? Will Britain benefit (or more likely will their 'told you so' stance to the Euro zone damage their chances further) and will Engleburt Humptyback be a vote winner for the UK (and ultimately who cares)? Will the overtly authoritarian state that is Azerbaijan be in any way affected (as the thick-headed, hard-line, testosterone fuelled machismo of Vladirmir Putin's government was back in 2009) by the influx of openly democratic values / Gay Pride / libertarianism / sub 1970s disco funk?

More important than all these concerns, however, is the prospect of finding a new song, a theme, for this year's Durotriges Big Dig Excavation. In 2010, the archaeological trenches of DBD resounded endlessly to the immaculately groomed Giorgos Alkaios (and his 'Friends') technofolkdiscostomp 'OPA',

the year before, in 2009, it had been the 'HeeeyHeyHey' Dancing Moldovian wearyourpantsonyourhead hit 'HORA DIN MOLDOVA' from Nelly Ciobanu,

whilst last year it was the brilliantly pointedhattedness of Moldova's (I'm sensing a pattern here) Teletubbies on Tartrazine Zdob si Zdub, with their amphetamine-fuelled trumpety 'SO LUCKY'

....but who will win the coveted title this year..(and can Moldova win the hat trick? - I've yet to see or hear this year's entry - Pasha Parfeny's 'LAUTAR' - so I can't, as yet sadly, comment)

Only 4 hours of semi finals and an epic 4 hours plus final this Saturday can resolve the matter.....

.....bring on the brawl !

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Signs of Life

There was a road sign that I used to see every morning on my way to work that seriously improved my day - a small white sign (nothing special), bordered in black, with three short words emblazoned across the centre:


A simple but direct message and one which always made me convulse with (rather demented) laughter (something that was, I suspect, rather disconcerting for all my passengers).

It’s not always easy to explain why things are funny (especially as, in this case, there is the implication of mass cruelty to feline quadrupeds), but it was the incongruity of it all, a sleepy, grass-grown country road flanked by ‘chocolate-box’ style thatched cottages freakishly combined with the stark warning to both motorists and cats that made me smile (even now). I guess if you add (as I frequently did at the time) the mental image of state officials, law-enforcement officers and representatives of Her Majesty’s government, all resolutely (and rather incomprehensibly) inflicting punishment upon the local feline population, then the whole thing takes on a whole new and rather darkly surreal turn.

Was this particular State-sponsored attempt at body part removal, I wondered, a punishment for perceived cat-crimes against humanity (defecating upon garden lawns) or was it a stark warning to both cats (for not eating enough mice) and cat owners (for their lack of pet control)? Whatever the case, as I passed the sign (and once the hilarity had died), I had the uneasy feeling that my progress would, one day, be blocked by a swarm of clawing, spitting, hissing, unfairly blinded moggies, all seeking revenge upon human-kind.

It makes you think doesn't it.....

.....well ok, perhaps it doesn’t, but it does highlight something which, for me, is a major (and utterly harmless) interest, namely sign watching. 

Attempts to modify negative human activities (such as vandalism or erosion) affecting areas of historic and natural interest using signage alone can, at times, be extremely successful, although it is fair to say that not everything works every time. Getting the right message across to the right section of society (the target audience) is, of course, rather important (otherwise why make a sign in the first place?), but not only do different people require different messages, but sometimes, just occasionally, the message itself does not appear to have been thought through all that carefully.

Some years ago there was a sign, prominently displayed, at the entrance to a small Medieval Castle in Wiltshire which read simply:


I suspect that the intent here was to dissuade any would-be treasure-seekers from looting a scheduled ancient monument protected by law, but this was one of those poorly thought out pieces of signage that, instead of warning people off, seemed to simply draw attention to the resource. “Thinking of Metal Detectoring” – “well gee no I wasn’t…but now you come to mention it, it does seem like quite a good idea….” Ultimately, it’s the sort of message that can have the opposite effect, positively encouraging members of the public to conduct a range of potentially damaging activities. 

In a similar vein, I’ve always felt that the swathe of signage that bombards British motorists with the message:


frequently has the opposite effect - instead of waking drivers up (or persuading them to stop at the next service station for a comfort break) these roadside questions get motorists thinking, “now that you mention it, I do feel a little tired”, before closing their eyes, drifting off into sleep and veering through the central reservation towards oncoming traffic. Something that would, I believe, have had the desired effect of waking motorists up and taking them out of their comfort zone, rather than reminding them of how just how tired they may (or may not) be, is something akin to a prominent 'hazard' warning such as:




Now such messages would definitely do it for me - there being no way that I would dare stop (or drift off to sleep) whilst driving through a designated were-wolf / vampire friendly zone. 

Another favourite, in my expanding collection of useful messages, was the sign at the Sutton Hoo Saxon Burial and Heritage Centre which reminded visitors (rather unnecessarily I thought) that there was:


Do people really need to be told this? Unless you possess either a clear belief in an after-life or of the success of corpse reanimation, surely the purpose (and sole use) of a cemetery is all rather self-evident.

A wonderful example of mixed messages (since you ask) is housed in the cubicles of the gentlemans public lavatory of a local National Trust property. This small sign, secreted above the flushing convenience itself, states that: 


Now this, I feel, is something that rather defeats the primary purpose of a toilet. If paper is, indeed, the only thing that may be deposited down the toilet, where should I hurl my own excreta? Should I venture to carefully fill the litter bins by the main car park, or should I utilise the well-tendered hedge outside the gift shop (as the foxes evidently do)?

Another popular tourist attraction in Dorset has, by the car park, a series of impressive metal containers emblazoned with the words:


“Thank you people of Poole”, I think as I pass by these bins “for collecting so much dog waste - now, er, what exactly would you like me to do with it.....?”

A few years ago, however, my interest in signage (and in the highly revered art of communication-bypass) got me into some trouble at work. The good people manning the staff canteen, obviously upset that certain individuals were clearly NOT considering their colleagues during mealtime, placed a sign on each table that read:


“Brilliant”, I thought when I first saw these messages, “I can now safely leave my food waste on the tabletop, rather than suffer the inconvenience of having to carry it all to the bins”. An over officious type (in a uniform) accosted me at the door and, pointing to my pile of lunch discard, politely enquired whether I was going to remove it. “No” I said (in my best patronising tone) “I was looking forward to seeing the self-clearing table at work – sounds very impressive”. He looked at me blankly. “You might want to change the message” I added helpfully, “something like ‘Please Remove your Rubbish’ or ‘Please ensure that the tables are clean after use’”.  I wasn’t getting through. Time to beat a dignified retreat. “Would you like me to ignore the self-cleaning capabilities of the table” I looked back expectantly (but it still showed little evidence that it was gearing up for action) “and tidy it myself?” 

The tabletop signs stayed for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t dare eat in the canteen again for 6 months. 

Anyway, to cut a long (and once again rather rambling) story short, this morning, on my way to site, I noticed that something on the route had changed for the worse. I guess that somebody had finally complained to the RSPCA about the high levels of localised pet torture in this particular part of Dorset for, although the familiar piece of highway signage remained steadfastly in place, the message had now been changed to:


Suddenly life seems a little less sweet.....

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Archaeology is child's play

These days I rarely ever visit a toyshop. Partly that's due to my age (thank you for noticing) but mostly it's due to the fact that the majority of independent toy stores around me seem to have closed down, leaving just the big warehouse emporia such as Toys R Us (whose outlets appear to be situated a convenient 10 km from any given city centre). When I do mange to find such a shop, however, I'm relieved / surprised / comforted (delete as applicable) to see that archaeology continues to be represented as a distinctive, though rather particular, brand of toy-based excitement. 

That archaeology, as opposed, say, to geography, geology, biology or physics, is so well represented within the world of toys today is, I guess, due in significant part to the success of the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft films / games which market the profession primarily as a form of adventure tourism, spiced with untold, life-changing quantities of treasure. Lego, Play Mobile and countless other manufacturers have 'cashed in' on this aspect of archaeology, some with a great deal of success, although the scope of treasure-retrieval is always fairly limited, involving a combination of despoiled tomb, desert-setting, combat-clothing, sparkling gold, reanimated (sometimes partially mummified) corpse and / or accompanying army of the undead, unscrupulous rival and villainous, gun-toting, quasi-fascist mercenaries.

The fact that this is far from the daily reality of archaeology doesn't seem to bother anyone (but then I suspect the real nature of the profession would not make for a particularly stimulating child's game: "What are you playing darling?"; "I'm playing 'fill in the context sheet with irrelevant detail concerning the colour, texture and consistency of soil mummy"; "Er...lovely darling, just don't upset the cat too much"...). I'm not complaining (really) as I have colleagues working in a variety of other scientific disciplines who would, quite literally, kill (or at least significantly maim) friends and close relatives in order to achieve similar levels of media and pop culture recognition (anything to make their specialist subject area appear at least half as exciting and thrilling as say Raiders of the Lost Ark). 

Look in any Toy shop or catalogue and you will find archaeologically inspired figurines, play sets and board games. Of all such archaeo-themed toys produced in recent years, my favourite has to be from the Lego Adventures range created in the late 1990s. These toys demonstrated, perhaps more clearly than anything, how archaeology has bled into the mainstream of pop culture and how 'the Public' perceive the stereotype. In this, now sadly defunct range (although it has occasionally been reactivated in slightly different forms following the last Indiana Jones movie - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - in 2008 as well as, rather bizarrely, the Jurassic Park franchise - which pitted archaeologists against dinosaurs of all things - and please don't get me started with the archaeology is NOT palaeontology rant again) Lego had, for its main character a stubble-chinned, battered hat and khaki-uniform wearing explorer, by the name of Johnny Thunder.

Thunder looked in every aspect the rough-and-ready rogue, part Harrison Ford part Brendon Frasier (with a liberal smattering of Vinnie Jones)...a diamond in the rough. The female of the archaeo-Lego species, Miss Pippin Read, was slightly less dishevelled (and more presentable) than her male counterpart, but evidently no less action-orientated, donning a distinctive green pith helmet, matching militaristic outfit (and, of course, bright-red lipstick). He raided tombs in Egypt; she looted the burial-grounds of South America (so I guess neither were destined ever to meet, although, now I come to think of it, perhaps they were part of a trans-national organisation (or pan-global cabal), systematically despoiling the treasures of the world for financial gain - there were, after all, no 'museum curators' in the Lego range, patiently awaiting the repatriation of cultural artefacts).

Other stock characters in the Archaeo-Adventurers range included:

Dr Kilroy, an elderly professorial type with big white moustache and sideburns (an intellectual, but rather loveable, if at times irritable, senior father-figure); Dr Lightening, a white-suited, white pith helmeted, monocle and bow tie-wearing, academic (whose loyalty was really rather uncertain - although I always had him down as a pedantic, bureaucratic, OCD type who disapproved of Johnny Thunder's gung-ho approach to fieldwork);

Senor Palamar, a villainous art collector (no doubt single-handedly supporting the world-wide black-market trade in illicit artefacts), dressed in Panama hat and cream suit and

Rudo Villano (the muscle behind Senor Palamar), another 'bad guy' with a similar fashion sense to Johnny Thunder, (they probably went to the same school before Rudo was seduced by the dark side) but (in classic Western-style) with a predilection for black hats, greater quantities of stubble and more intense frowns (probably as he tried vainly to understand how Thunder was always able to outwit him), not to mention a nasty facial scar (either from a horrific shaving miscalculation or, more likely, from an earlier encounter with his nemesis). 

All these adventuring types possessed the standard pop culture kit necessary for fieldwork in treasure enriched foreign fields; namely rifles (presumably for self defence), pistols (ditto), dynamite ( careful removal of well preserved stratigraphic sequences), magnifying glasses (for close examination of artefacts), shovels (for detailed excavation) and pick-axes (for sensitive removal of fragile remains - or for removing the bad-guy's easily-detachable heads). None of the fieldworkers carried trowels, dental tools, writing equipment, note-books, planning frames or cameras (but then I guess that recording wasn't really a priority in their line of work). Thankfully, unlike their real world counterparts, who never seem to be more than 3 feet away from a bottle of fire-water, none of the Adventures range carried alcohol in any quantity (but then hey, this was a kid’s toy).

I suppose that my main worry about such child’s play archaeology is the clear disparity between the need to record artefacts / buildings / burials in situ and the desire to shoot the living crap out of things. Both Mr (or Dr?) Thunder and Miss (or Dr?) Reed, like their cinematic counterparts Jones and Croft, carried significant, rather infeasible quantities of weaponry. This may in part be due to the chosen areas of fieldwork, carrying with it the potential to be devoured by something that has a real taste for heat-moulded plastic, but I suspect, more likely, that it's due to the probability of bumping into a rival archaeologist / treasure hunter with a greater desire for buried loot; after all, why share the spoils when you can blast your opponent back into their component parts? 

The Lego explorers all possessed rifles and pistols, but other pop culture archaeologists from the worlds of literature, TV, radio and cinema, carry knives, swords, pistols, rifles, sub machine guns, lasers, stasers, quantum torpedoes and all manners of death-ray.

This dependence on extreme armament does make me question the motives of these treasure-seekers for I have never myself really felt the need for side arms on a dig (though there has been odd the occasion where I wished I that had in my possession something more threatening than a 3 inch pointing trowel and a propelling pencil), but then, I guess, if I were battling the combined armies of Dr Lightening / Rudo Villano, Imhotep, Klingons, Nazis, Daleks, Nazi Daleks etc whilst investigating the cess pits and middens of our ancient ancestors, then possession of a lethal arsenal of death-dealing technology would appear sensible.   

Perhaps, in the light of Lego's recommendations, I should reconsider the equipment listing for this summer's field project - you never know what undead / supernatural / black-market / totalitarian menace may be lurking in the undergrowth of an outwardly placid corn field in southern Britain...... please excuse me; time to lock n' load...