Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Place: Where archaeology became real..

The title of this post is a little cheeky- archaeology is of course "real" all over the world- in your back garden digging up Victorian pottery and rat skeletons, or at huge and iconic sites like the Acropolis in Athens, or Teotihuacan in Mexico. I have done my fair share of scratching in my home turf and visiting showstopping sites abroad. I'd done enough of both to know, from a pretty early age, that I wanted to be an archaeologist. The problem I had was that I didn't know where the archaeologist I wanted to be belonged. I loved everything about my courses as an undergraduate, read voraciously around the subject, and gradually got more specific- I knew I was interested in later prehistory, but where? Britain? France? Central Europe? I went digging and wrote an undergraduate dissertation. When it came to choosing a topic for the dissertation aspect of the MA I knew I wanted to do, I was stuck. The question of specialism had arrived- what did I really want to do, and where did I want to do it?

The Duomo, Orvieto, Umbria. 

The answer was decided for me in a meeting with Etruscan archaeologist, Dr Vedia Izzet. She had not taught me over my undergraduate degree, but when meeting with her to discuss the MA she co-directed, she skilfully steered me to her own specialism. I went home with five books, and returned the next day burning with questions and more book borrowing requests. I'll blog a little more on the Etruscans in my next post, but it is the place they inhabited which is the focus of this story. I had never been to Italy except on a rugby tour, and had not formed the most favourable impression after three days in Rimini in March. From that meeting with Vedia, travel to this amazing country became one of the most important markers in my life. If you've never been to Italy, I urge you to go. Drop everything. Go tomorrow. It's a perfect time if you're not into hot weather, and the archaeological sites (outside the "big guns" in Rome, Pompeii and Florence) will be all yours to explore. My first trip to Italy with my archaeological eyes open came in April 2009, and I have visited regularly ever since. Excavation in Italy has been one of the highlights of my year since I began working there in 2010. The experience of living in Italy for 6 weeks a year, learning Italian to a level far beyond my A-level French, and of falling in love with Italian culture, both ancient and modern, has been a transformative experience. A huge amount of this blog will be about Italy, Italian culture past and present, my travels and excavations in Italy, so I thought it was only right to explain why, and how I ended up here. As the title of this post suggests, Italy made archaeology real for me, and my life has never been the same since.

 The Foro Romano, Rome.

How about you? Have you ever been somewhere that has crawled inside your soul and wedged itself in? At what moment did archaeology become real for you, rather than a vision in your head? Did you always know what you wanted to specialise in, or did it take a well timed intervention? I'd love to know.

Etruscan tombs at the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis, Orvieto. 

PS The photos from this post are of my first trip to Italy- can't you tell from their content?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A beginning

Every blog has a start and a story. They all begin inside someone's head, somewhere. This one brewed inside my brain for a long time before I dragged it out and put it on t'internet. I wanted to write about my work as an archaeologist, the daily happenings of nosing in and out of the lives of people long dead. I also wanted a space to share things that weren't necessarily archaeologically related, but that were important. That's how the title of this blog came about. I noticed that lots of the blogs I love to read (have a look on the sidebar if you're keen) were either about working practice or lifestyle/interiors/whatever. I wanted to write a blog that presents ideas from the archaeological world, alongside the things that make the present world I live in beautiful.

So, here it is. The four words of the title, which I will use to label each post, form the four foundations of this blog. 

Pots are the containers of our lives. They keep us fed and watered, they hold our toothbrushes in the morning and our pens on the desk. When I first began to study archaeology, pots symbolised all that was potentially boring about the discipline. I was an idiot. There is nothing boring about an object that is used so much, turned to so often, that it becomes forgettable. Pot posts on the blog will be for important things that are often forgotten, daily life things that get hidden away beneath the (ahem) glamour of academic life, thinking deep thoughts, and all that nonsense.

Places are wild and tame, soft and harsh, safe and dangerous. There is a whole pile of literature which tries to pin down exactly what transforms space into place (I'll get into it another day). Places we know, places we don't know, places we want to know- they are all-encompassing, all around us, defined by our inhabitation and presence (or lack of). A big assumption that I regularly fall into is thinking that places in the past were as important as places in the present- and personally, they are incredibly important. Place posts here will be focused on ideas about place and landscape, or explorations of single places, whether archaeological sites or modern cities.

Stones seem hard. They make your feet ache when you walk on them barefoot, they gather together in gravel or rear out of the earth as a single mass of rock. You can use stones to make beautiful things: sculptures, handaxes, or just a pile of river-worn pebbles piled in a garden corner. Stones can be eroded easily away by the movement of water or the sea, or can stand unchanged by centuries. They are tough as granite, or fall away at the touch of your fingers like sandstone. Stone posts will be about realities and necessities of archaeological life and practice that are not comfortable at first sight. They will also be about theoretical ideas and philosophies. Some improve on reflection, and provide a tool or a new way to think. Some do not. That's just the way stones are.

Bones are the final part of this set of four. Bones are literally the stuff of life. They are what are holding the flesh on my fingers together as I write this. When I excavate bones, whether animal (most of the time) or human (pretty infrequently), I am always struck by the way they continue to exude life, long after the animating flesh has gone. Dry and fragile, honeycomb insides showing where they have been snapped by roots or a rough life in the soil, bones survive as memories of a thing that was once alive. Bones posts will be about people from the past- giving my thoughts on archaeological discoveries (big and small), media representation (silly and serious) and my own practice.

I'll try and blog as often as it feels right. I hope you enjoy what you read, and what you find.

(P.S. When I get a minute, I'll tart this blog up a bit more. In the meantime, the words are the most important thing, right?)

The Lion Gate at Mycenae- a place for beginnings and a lovely example of what you can do with stone when you try.