Friday, 28 November 2014

Archaeo newswatch: cultures (and vultures)

There's lots of talk in the British media (as there is in any run up to a general election) about culture, nationality, sovereignty and immigration. As an archaeologist, whose job it is to study ancient culture, nations, sovereigns and migration, I find it all rather repetitive, depressing, unnecessary and, dare I say it, a little bit dull, especially in a week where the tabloid press is bleating (as it always now seems to) about what it means to be British and how 'our' cultural traditions are being steadily eroded by Europe / Asia / America / Australia (and, come to think of it, why not Antarctica given the number of penguins currently on TV?).
Without sounding like Mr Angry from Tunbridge Wells, there has, I'm sorry to say, never been such a thing as a static, unchanging 'British culture' - it's always been in a state of flux, all manner of words, customs, fashions, foods (etc) regularly coming in from other peoples, cultures, ethnicities and nationalities. Every country, nation or state (with the possible exception of North Korea) is, however much their politicians deny it, continually copying, adopting, adapting, plagiarising or stealing ideas from one another. When you take the big UK news story of today (well apart from the one about a Conservative MP calling a serving police officer a pleb - haven't we done this one already?), 
the impact of 'Black Friday', a brand new (imported) tradition in which seemingly normal people queue all night outside a department store so that, at the strike of midnight, they can assault one another with children's toys,

or the big story of last month about the impact of the (new) annual Halloween tradition of 'Trick-or-Treat' (30 years ago in the UK all we had for entertainment on 'All Hallows Eve' was apple-bobbing and whittling a parsnip), then it's clear that culture is (as it always has been) in a state of change. 
Do I mind that so-called 'British traditions' are on the decline? Well no, actually, having no particular desire to sit in a thatched hut covered in blue woad with horse urine and chalk dust in my hair eating roast pork (as the first 'true' Britons apparently did according to the totally fair and objective travel writer Julius Caesar), I'm actually quite glad that things have moved on in the last two millennia and we now have things like tea and wine and curry, not to mention shampoo and soap.
Last year, a journalist from a tabloid newspaper was interviewing me about a skeleton dug up from a Roman cemetery which appeared to represent the remains of a woman from sub Saharan Africa. 'Was she a slave?' the journalist asked (unconsciously enforcing his own cultural prejudices). 'No' I replied, 'given that she was a high status burial in a high status cemetery that seemed quite unlikely'. 'Well' the journalist went on, 'she must have appeared quite out of place in northern Europe at the time'. I could see where he was going with this (given the stance taken by his own particular paper on immigration). 'Again no' I replied, 'given that we have good documentary and archaeological evidence from Roman Britain for Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Algerians and Ethiopians, not to mention Germans, Spaniards, Italians and peoples from areas now incorporated within France, Hungary, Romania, Albania etc etc, she would probably have fitted right in. In fact' I decided to really upset him with a hard dose of archaeological reality, 'Roman Britain was probably one of the most multi-cultural and racially diverse periods in British history, all these ethnicities adding to the rich ancestral mix that we have today'.
The interview ended shortly after that and never appeared in print.
Oh well, less than six months to the election, then we can all talk about some other news story - there must be something else happening in the world surely?

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Digging for Troy

Archaeologists are proud to call a spade a spade (and not a hand-operated, steel tipped, wooden handled soil interface device) and covert those hand-operated, steel tipped, wooden handled soil interface devices that slice well, slice deep into the earth, never giving them up to the inexperienced practitioner.

One such digging tool has just sold for a quite incredible $6,250 in the USA, not because of its excellent soil-slicing properties (although I'm sure it has those in...ahem...spades) but because of its erstwhile literary connections. 

The spade was once briefly owned by playwright George Bernard Shaw, who used it to plant a mulberry tree on his 80th birthday in 1936.
Later it was presented to the author Ray Bradbury as a Christmas gift.

Bradbury, a huge fan of Shaw, was apparently so delighted in taking possession of the artefact, that he wrote a poem to commemorate the event. As so few poems are ever written about the act of digging (and as the Press, in their wisdom, published only a few lines), it is perhaps worth setting it down in full:
I hold the dear spade in my hands,
Its vibrant lightnings strike and move along my arms,
The ghost of Shaw climbs up through me
I feel a fiery brambling of chin
I feel my spine
Stand straight as if a lightning bolt had struck
His old voice whispers in my ear, dear boy
Find Troy, go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy!
But where, I cry, but where, but where?
Why there, good lad, there there, ah, there
Electric goes his fingers. I quake, start
The old man's ghost is pointing at my heart
Can that be true, how deep, how long the digging, can it be true?
Good grief, shut up, says Shaw, grab hold, fall to!
He steps back in the dust, down in the shade,
And I stand, Christmas morn, with ancient spade,
Great Shaw the First is gone, is dead?
His son stands here, Excalibured,
And crowned my head.
I love the enthusiasm with which Bradbury eulogises both playwright and spade, as if the power of the former fully inhabitants the garden implement. I can understand his feelings. Many years ago I came in possession of a small set of digging equipment previously owned, and used, by Eric Holden and John Pull, pioneering Sussex amateur archaeologists and I well recall the tingling sense that, in holding the pick, shovel and spades, I was in some way connecting directly with both the personalities of the fieldworkers and the sites they had investigated.

I also love Bradbury's sense of emulating Heinrich Scliemann in attempting to find Troy. Recalling the epic trenches cut by hand at the direction of that great German antiquarian explorer in the early 1870s through the Turkish site of Hissarlik, in which over 250,000 cubic meters of soil was displaced by 200 workmen using horse carts, wheel barrows and a small rail track over a 3 year period, I expect that it would have taken the author quite some time to replicate Schliemann's efforts.

Still I admire his courage and, thinking about it, 'Go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy' sounds like it may well become the site motto for next year's summer fieldwork project.
Although finding an ancient Trojan city in the middle of the Dorset countryside may prove quite a task.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Latin as she is spoke

I don't, as I think I've said before (and probably at length), speak Latin. People believe that, as an archaeologist with some classical leanings that I ought to. Well I don't. Throw me a Roman inscription (well, pass me one with care so that I don't drop it and break a toe) and I'll make a passable stab at translating it, but that's a completely different ollam piscium. Inscriptions follow a set formula and they're (relatively) easy to disentangle and make sense of. Big swathes of Latin text: now that's far more tricky.

For some reason people confuse being a field archaeologist with being a classical scholar with a full understanding of all ancient languages. Usually that's not too much of a problem, for I can quickly (and privately) explain and diffuse the situation before anyone gets too embarrassed.

Not today, however.

No, today, in front of a (relatively) large crowd of students, ex students and parents, all gathered for a graduation ceremony, somebody innocently asked if anyone could possibly explain what the  university motto, emblazoned in ten-foot high golden letters above the main podium, actually meant. In the deafening silence that followed I could feel 54 pairs of eyes swivel slowly in my direction. I knew from experience that I couldn't get to the fire exit in time nor could I suddenly fall to the floor, feigning a no doubt very painful injury. These people knew I was an archaeologist; they knew that I dig Roman remains for a living.

The words were by this time glaring down at me contemptuously - daring me to make a translation: 

Discere Mutari Est  

I tried to look confident and cleared my throat:

"er....Carthage Must be Destroyed"

No one was all that convinced.