Friday, 29 November 2013

The Archaeology of Pies

Who ate all the pies? A question rarely put to archaeologists, which is a shame because they probably know the answer. 

Who ate all the pies? They did: each and every last one of them, the archaeologist's ate them all.

If anyone should doubt such a conclusion, they need only look at the results of Lancashire Smith's new fieldwork project in the playing fields of Beanotown School as premiered on the TV channel CBBC last night. 

Work in the playing field, apparently an “Area of Outstanding Scientific Interest” (so I have no idea how permission was granted for the school building in the first place, let alone the subsequent archaeological investigation), revealed a well preserved body of a warrior complete with the remains of a ‘Bronze Age Pie’ 

The pie was a truly amazing find: a heritage asset the like of which has never before been seen (and something which, once probed, studied, tested and analysed, would undoubtedly have changed our perception of the prehistoric past, not only of Beanotown, but also northern Europe). Within seconds of being discovered, however, the Bronze Age pie had been devoured, with no attempt to record said meat-filled pastry for posterity (as this CCTV footage of the archaeological fieldworker in question amply demonstrates):

Positively shocking.

I do hope that this appalling act of pie-based-vandalism will not be repeated and I am writing to Lancashire Smith's university department to express my outrage. 

Now what's for lunch?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Mine all mine

There are aspects of my job that, to an outsider, can appear a little strange: eating warm pizza wedged into a narrow, 5,000 year old chalk-cut tunnel, some 12 metres below the rain-swept surface of Norfolk may well be one of them.

I was doing a small piece to camera, a discussion on flint mining in the Neolithic, whilst simultaneously crawling through the restricted space of a disused prehistoric mine gallery. It's one of the few places in Britain where you can still get a feeling of how things may have been in the Neolithic. Down here, in the claustrophobic space, cut from the chalk by the men, women and children of prehistoric East Anglia, there is no sense of the modern world intruding upon you. No planes, trains or automobiles, no mobile signal, no bird song. None of the distracting background 'chatter' of the modern world. 

Some of the galleries, where the deer antler picks still lie, abandoned by their owners a mere five millennia ago, it can feel as if the miners have only just stopped work, downed tools and popped back up to the surface for a bite to eat. You sometimes get the eerie sense that they may just return at any moment, demanding to know just what the hell you think you're doing crawling around their workspace disturbing everything. 

Empires have risen and fallen since these antler picks last saw the light of day: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia have all have passed into history, but the tools left by the Neolithic miners still reside deep underground, patiently waiting for their owners to return.

Down here you also get a real sense, not just of the achievement of the prehistoric communities that originally dug out the chalk and extracted the necessary flint with tools made only of antler, bone and stone, but also of the extreme difficulties they must have faced in the subterranean galleries. Elliot Curwen, writing in the early 1930s about a flint mine in Sussex (Harrow Hill), observed, when first encountering a freshly exposed gallery:

"A long dark tunnel stretches before us. Slowly and with awe, one of the excavators creeps into the gallery, candle in hand, noticing everything, and careful to disturb nothing. He is acutely conscious that he is the first human being to enter this underground workshop for some four thousand years. Suddenly he catches sight of a row of holes cleanly punched in the chalk wall while on the floor close by is a pick made from the antler of a red deer; the holes look as if they had only been made yesterday, fresh and clean-cut, with the chalk burred a little at the lip by the pressure of the pick. Progress along the gallery is far from easy. One must crawl on elbows and stomach, trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk, one’s fingers spluttered with candle grease. It is warm, and the silence is intensified by the tiny, far-away song of the mosquitoes who have found their way through the chinks in the chalk to this subterranean place of repose."

Today, whilst facing the cameraman, sound recordist and director, I am aware that they are blocking my only exit from the tunnel, whilst behind me, disappearing back into the darkness, lurk the still-blocked galleries, filled with chalk debris, antler picks, stone tools and possibly, just possibly, the remains of the miners themselves.

We finally complete the interview and then start to pack up. I crawl, as Curwen described, on elbows and stomach, 'trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk', past the crew to the deeper recesses of another gallery so that I may collect my abandoned kit. As I enter the space, in the hazy light of my helmet-mounted head-torch, three prehistoric picks are illuminated. Without thinking I pick one up and hold the cold, damp artefact for a moment, turning it over it my hand and feeling its weight. 

Then, for no real reason, I turn off my light.

Behind me (somewhere) I can hear the soundman locating his equipment and trying, unsuccessfully, to put it all away whilst, to my right, another member of the team is crawling slowly back towards the main shaft. Their muffled grunts and scrapes echo strangely off the walls around me and I start to feel a little disorientated. I also have a curious feeling that, when I do finally turn on my light, someone else will be in the gallery with me; some ancient figure clasping a pick and caked with chalk dust and sweat.

When I do (eventually) turn the light back on, I am somewhat relieved to find that I am alone.

I crawl back to the main shaft and the ladder that connects us to the real world above. We have only been down in the chalk for 4 hours, but it seems like days. Grimes Graves is a truly magical place.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Archaeology of Scooby Doo

Funny what you find yourself watching at 5am when you can't sleep.

Reruns of Scooby Doo (the popular 1960s / 70s / 80s / 90s / 00s / 10s adventure featuring an animated canine and his ever-haunted human chums) seems to be a popular choice at present for the Late Night TV channel schedulers (probably expecting a mass of insomniac children).

Collapsing before the altar of Scoob, Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne, I was pleased (as I always am) to see our old friend the "Stock Archaeologist" rear his (and her) recognisable and utterly unmistakeable head(s).

I could tell straight away the that we were in the presence of pop culture bone-kickers: he (Professor Stonehack - did he possess a first name?) was resplendent in Khaki field gear, fedora, overtly masculine facial hair and square jaw

whilst she (Elina Stonehack) was also dressed in Khaki, but with a red scarf (and semi-demented stare).

Both wielded pick-axes, shovels and (rather bizarrely) what appeared to be yard brooms. Both were undoubtedly 'bad-hats'.

And so it proved to be (SPOILER ALERT), the professor dressing up as 'the Ghost of King Katazuma', Elina preferring the outfit of 'the Aztec Statue Monster', in order to scare people away from the reality of their nefarious scam: the pocketing of an ancient Aztec treasure.

I wondered, as one does at such times, whether other archaeologists had appeared in Scooby Doo, and whether the stereotype had ever shifted in the programmes’ 40 year plus history. Here the resource tool SCOOBYPEDIA (what did we do before the internet?) proved invaluable.

It would appear that, since 1969, only two types of archaeologist have appeared in this particular slice of pop culture. Unsurprisingly, given what we've already discussed in the past (and identified as the medical condition of  'Clarke Kent Syndrome'), these two extremes were: A) the seedy (nerdy), spectacle-wearing academic, ill at ease with both the real world and the meddling kids that inhabit it (cue Dr Henry Walton Jones Jnr); and B), the rugged, no-holds barred, all-guns blazing field explorer, also ill-at ease with the real world but more likely to gun down any meddling kids that they meet along the way (cue Indiana Jones).

Here, for example, is an example from type A, the ever-so-slightly seedy and totally obsessed academic: Professor Jameson Hyde White (archaeologist from the episode What a Night for a Knight)

Hyde White was (SPOILER ALERT) captured by Mr. Wickles in a Black Knight costume but was later found tied up and gagged after Mr. Wickles was arrested for covering up a series of forged paintings, having stolen and kept the originals, which the professor, as an archaeologist, would apparently have noticed ( was he 'archaeologist' of in any case?). 

Here, from the episode The Mummy of Ankha, is 'The Professor' (so dull that he doesn't even possess a name)

who works in the Department of Archaeology (of an unidentified American University) who, whilst setting up an Egyptian mummy for a display, was kidnapped (SPOILER ALERT) by the reanimated mummy

and then later found tied up, gagged, and stuffed in a sack.

Only of course the Mummy wasn't real, but was native Egyptian academic Dr Najib in disguise,

all of which raises uncomfortable issues surrounding the acquisition of Egyptian artefacts by Western / colonial powers and the repatriation of cultural remains - indeed who is the REAL villain here, the professor (colonial looter) or Dr Najib (indigenous heritage officer?). According to the storyline, the good / bad (delete as applicable) Dr Najib wanted an Egyptian coin that could release a diamond hidden within one of the artefacts on display in the university museum. Somehow dressing up and kidnapping people, such as the good / bad professor (delete as applicable), and then making a series of detailed and highly realistic stone copies of the kidnaped seemed, to Dr Najib at least, a sensible way of obtaining said coin whilst simultaneously throwing people off the scent.

It didn't work.

Here's another seedy archaeo-acadmic, Professor Brixton 

working on the excavation of the underground city of Byzantius in Turkey (no, me neither), hence his unconvincing efforts to don the clothing and attitude of a real field archaeologist. Whilst working at Byzantius, Brixton and his workers are menaced by a green-eyed (one-eyed) Tar Monster, in reality (SPOILER ALERT) Mr Stoner in disguise (who would have guessed?).

Coming a bit more up to date, Scooby Doo also has prime examples of the Type B pop culture archaeologist, the thrill-seeking, egotistical adventurer, obsessed with the importance of their own discoveries (and their own personal fame): in this case represented by Lysander Demas

and Susie Smythe.

Susie, it transpired (SPOILER ALERT) secretly dressed up as a Centaur because she wanted Atlantis to be her discovery and not that of Demas (not quite sure, in the cold light of day, how that made sense to poor Susie...possibly her brain was addled after spending too much time filling in context sheets).

Thinking about these particular examples taken from the world of pop culture archaeology, I realise that my own on site research / digging technique is particularly ghoul-free. Perhaps, next time I find an Iron Age storage pit or a Roman ditch, instead of half-sectioning the feature then drawing, photographing and otherwise recording it, I'm going to scare people away by hiding beneath a fluorescent green sheet, swathing myself in bandages and hopping about on one leg screaming ‘Arggg Argg’ at passers-by, making great claims to be the reanimated Pot Sherd Phantom of the Forbidden Purple Test Pit.

Who knows, against all the evidence provided in Scooby Doo, I might just get away with it....

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Heritage 'Heroes'

The Honourable Edward Henry Butler Vaizey, currently UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibilities in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, elected Conservative Member of Parliament for the constituency of Wantage in the 2005 General Election (re-elected in 2010) has this week made a bit of an a*** of himself.

A qualified barrister and regular media columnist and commentator (according to Wikipedia), Mr Vaizey has managed to insult pretty much everyone working in the archaeological and heritage profession (quite an achievement even for a standing politician).

What was his crime?

Well, it was this spectacularly ill-judged comment: “I salute all the responsible metal detectorists – true heritage heroes – whose patience and unceasing curiosity do so much to bring treasure to light”.

Now I've got nothing against responsible metal detectorists at all (many important archaeological finds and sites have only come to light following work conducted by just such people) and I have worked with many on a number of projects and always value their input BUT I would like to point out that metal detectoring is a hobby (a sometimes lucrative one if you're lucky) whilst working as an archaeologist or heritage professional is a career (and a poorly paid one at that).

So, Mr Vaizey, for a Member of Parliament whose government is currently forcing through austerity measures which are effectively closing museums, slashing arts and heritage budgets and forcing redundancy upon countless field archaeologists, university academics, local authority advisors, museum curators and other associated professionals (all of whom, I think, any right minded individual would call the true heroes of the heritage world), do you not think that such comments are thoughtless, hurtful, ill-judged and insensitive? Perhaps, in future, you should stick to discussing media and sport rather than attempting to dabble (rather unsuccessfully) in matters of culture.