Monday, 30 May 2016

The curse of the archaeo-inbox

After checking my emails this morning (despite it being a bank holiday) I discovered I have a new internet ID, the rather catchy sounding 'Inbox 4000'

Yes, that's right, just as I'm about to start a summer of archaeological fieldwork I realise that there are a mere 4,000 emails requiring my immediate attention. On average I receive between 300 and 400 emails a day. That may sound as if I'm extremely popular

Trust me, I'm not

The majority of messages are spam, but, hidden within them are meeting requests (many many meeting requests), academic reminders, endless pieces professional advice, student queries and the odd (sometimes very odd) personal message. It's the student queries and personal messages that I try to weed out first and answer, whilst the rest either get deleted or relegated to a 'read-respond-later' limbo.

Evidently it's that read-respond-later limbo that is expanding (at a quite ridiculous rate). I'm not convinced that there's really enough time in the world to read (or indeed respond to) the outstanding 4,000. Perhaps I should just delete them on the assumption that either they're spam (and can therefore be safely be ignored) or, if not, then it's simply too late to reply or do anything. Perhaps I should leave them and see how many more I accumulate by the end of August, when archaeological fieldwork comes to an end.

Who knows, by then I may be 'Inbox 10,000' 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Archaeo-newswatch: Holy Grail Found

I awoke this morning to an explosive archaeological news story and one which, given it's importance, I'm surprised isn't the headline of the day (if not the week, month, year or century). 

Apparently, according to the BBC, the FA Cup "is the Holy Grail"


I have to say that the significance of this particular piece of information took some time to register.

The Holy Grail - THE Holy Grail has been found. The most important artefact in Arthurian mythology, an object that dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, something that, legend has it, can supply eternal youth, has been identified as the trophy that is presented to the winners of the Football Association Challenge Cup, an annual knockout competition held in England and Wales since the late 19th century - I really did not see that coming.

I repeat - 'Wow!'

Centuries of fruitless searching across the world and it was here, in Britain, all the time - that's certainly a major point to Grail lore specialists (who always knew it must be somewhere in the UK), and one in the eye for all the conspiracy-theorists and Dan Brown acolytes (who believed that 'the Grail' was some sort of code for a holy bloodline). 

If only someone could explain where this incredible artefact has been in the two millennia since its first documented use in Judea.

Looking at the cup more closely though, using a host of images on the BBC and other news websites, I have to say that I'm not sure that the identification is particularly sound. 

I have yet to ascertain who made the discovery, nor, indeed which university led the investigative team (although I'm still frantically scanning the internet to find out), for the design, shape and general level of ornamentation is not quite the sort of thing I would expect to see from an early 1st century AD context.

Perhaps it's just another piece of overblown media hype......

Saturday, 14 May 2016

What does Europe mean to you?: 9

Well here we are again, the annual opportunity to choose an anthem for the Durotriges Big Dig archaeological excavation to be played loudly (and constantly) across the site tannoy system and in all site transportation in order to motivate, inspire and infuriate (in equal measure). Other people see the competition as 'the Eurovision Song Contest'. We, however, know the truth.

This year the choice has been made particularly difficult by how seriously all participating countries are taking the competition: this year they are no trumpets, no trombones and no fur-clad, fire wielding, baggy-trousered maniacs 'hey-hey-heying' their way across the stage (well Greece came close, bless 'em, although they didn't make it to the final)

although there is a song about Soviet-era atrocities committed by Stalin in Ukraine.

OK so the usual collection of bizarre, non-song related accessories were on show in the semi-finals, like a woman from Moldova serenading a cosmonaut

an Israeli couple strapped to a spinning wheel

a Russian man nailed to a wall

some Cypriots in a cage

a near-naked Slovenian man stuck to a slanty-pole

and a completely naked man from Belarus patiently teaching a wolf how to fly

(that bit may have been lost in translation).

But, is there a song in the semifinals, or indeed the Grand Final (where the host country Sweden and the 'big five', comprising the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, all join in), that could legitimately motivate 120 archaeologists to shift vast quantities of soil in record time throughout May, June and July? Well, it's the Grand Final tonight and, after all the votes have been counted, drinks drunk and nibbles consumed, the winner will be announced...

...just don't hold your breath - it may take a while

Friday, 13 May 2016

Fiddling Nero

I confess that I've never really thought of UK Prime Minister David Cameron as Nero (more like Claudius if we're going to pick a Roman emperor entirely at random), 

but Trevor Phillips, former head of the UK equality watchdog, apparently thinks otherwise. His comments, noted in the Telegraph (so quite how accurate this is is anyone's guess) appear to claim that, thanks to a "liberal self-delusion" over mass immigration, Britain risks racial and religious conflict, likening the political elite to "the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned" unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the “dark side of the diverse society.” Now I'm not a politician (thank you for noticing) and have no wish to wade into any wider debate about the perceived state of society, however as an archaeologist who has spent (probably far too much) time examining the life, appreance, impact and general facial appearance of Rome's fifth emperor (right down to his ornate coiffure), I do feel able to make a few highly pedantic (and probably largely irrelevant) points in the interests of historical accuracy.

First off, let's just quickly bury the fact that Nero 'fiddled whilst Rome burned' (leaving the aside the rather awkward fact that the fiddle wasn't invented until a good millennium after his demise). 

Although it's a great expression, alluding to the ineffectiveness of political leaders at a time of crisis (which is what I assume Trevor Phillips meant), one thing we can be sure of was that Nero was only too aware of the significance the Great fire that struck Rome in July AD 64. Trouble is, he appears to have enjoyed the drama of it all, allegedly singing a song on the destruction of Troy as the city burnt. Nero was also astutely aware of the need to get Rome working again after the fire, organising relief, supplying food and setting about the immediate plans for reconstruction. Unfortunately for him, having done all this, Nero lost control of the PR campaign, once it became clear that his was planning to build a large private palace and pleasure dome within an area of the city cleared by the fire.

A second, and perhaps rather more important point, is that despite all the invading, killing and enslaving committed by the Roman Empire (and there was rather a lot of this), Rome was, up until the time of Nero, famously tolerant of all faiths, allowing diverse cultures of all sorts to flourish. It was during the reign of Nero however, following the Great Fire, that the first active persecution of religious minorities began in the city, partly to divert attention away from Nero's own increasing unpopularity. 

Now, whilst we have not (thankfully) descended to the mass burnings, crucifixions and animal related executions of the sort that Nero organised, it is true that there is today a worrying trend towards the demonisation of minority groups (as seen most shamefully in the recent London mayoral election campaign). In that respect, perhaps, the excesses of Nero's reign, not to say the fate that ultimately befell him, should serve as a warning. Toleration and cultural assimilation famously worked for Rome; active persecution did not.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The 'curse' of archaeology

Emerging bleary-eyed from 12 months hard labour in the academic equivalent of the subterranean mines of Pankot Palace, I hungrily grabbed at the nearest newspaper to find out what has changed in the archaeological world....

...very little as it seems.

In fact the lead archaeo-news story still seems to be about a long deceased Medieval monarch.

It appears that this weekend, despite being officially dead for over half a millennium, King Richard III won two major sporting trophies.

In what CNN described as "the fairytale that has gripped the world", Leicester City (Football Club) has won the Premiership trophy. Now, as long term readers of this blog (both of you) will know, my love of football is not quite as great as my love of the Peruvian nose-flute. As a consequence, I find it hard to gauge whether or not this is a big story (although apparently it is a classic example of 'David beating Goliath' - or something). What strikes me as particularly bizarre, however, is the role played by the last Plantagenet king in all this.   

BBC sport pundit Mike Bushell felt the need to provide his own possible explanation on Breakfast:

"what's behind this amazing transformation from relegation candidates to champions elect?" he pondered. "Is it the manager?; The previous manager?; The players and their togetherness?; The owners and their five year plan?; Or could it be written in history thanks to the influence of this chap, the former King Richard III whose re interment in Leicester came just before the upturn in the club's fortune?"

Well I'm not sure Mike but, considering that you're standing outside Leicester's very own King Richard Experience, I suspect you're leaning towards the latter theory.

Certainly a (not previously selected) group of Leicester City fans confirmed that in their opinion it wasn't the manager / team combo that won the trophy as "it's all down to the big famous King Richard"

So, there you go, it must be true.

Further confirmation, if it were needed, was provided by the Guardian, Mirror, Mail, Times and Telegraph papers in the UK whilst in the States CNN observed that just as Leicester City came top of the Premiership, York City, who lost out in the legal battle surrounding who had the right to bury Richard III, "was relegated from the lowest division of professional English football in 92nd, and last, place".


Er.....hang on, don't tell me....I know this....erm

In a surprise, though (apparently) no less dramatic footnote, Leicester snooker player Mark Selby won the Snooker World Championship ON THE SAME DAY.....!

Unsurprisingly, just as with the Football title, Richard was duly thanked. Well quite, after all, who could not forget the rousing speeches, immortalised in the writing of Shakespeare, that Richard III gave in support of UK Sport, the games of snooker that came before the battle of Bosworth and the celebratory footie match that followed Henry Tudor's victory.

Well, me for one.

Nice though, to see archaeology at the forefront of world attention, albeit it a rather unusual way. Also intriguing to see that, just for once, the exhumation of a Royal body has not been met with the usual fanfare of curses, plagues and other ghastly goings-on. This is, of course, far from the default setting of archaeology. From Tutankhamun to Scooby Doo, Doctor Who to Lara Croft, the discovery of a Royal burial is almost always met with destruction, death and general unpleasantness on a large scale (especially for the excavators). This time it appears that the archaeological team have not unleashed a bandage-swathed curse upon the world, and for that, I am eternally grateful.. indeed, I suspect, are the good people of Leicester.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Waking up

(With apologies to Douglas Adams)

Arthur: "Who are you?"

Lintilla: "Archaeologist"

Arthur: "What?"

Lintilla: "Shhhhhh"

Arthur: "Archaeologist?"

Lintilla: "Yes"

Arthur: "What are you doing?"

Lintilla: "Digging, researching, trying to stay alive"

Arthur: "What, with that lot around?"

Lintilla: "Most particularly because that lot are around"

So, we are finally, what's been happening?