Friday, 30 November 2012

Place: Home

As you might have spotted in my last blog post, I recently spent 10 days in Italy working. I was originally going to blog straight away about what a great time I had, the lovely friends I saw and the brilliant people I met, and had all sorts of cool photos ready to go. Then I came home. Do you ever get a rush of happiness just arriving at a familiar place? I've never really felt that about anywhere I lived until now, but coming back from Rome after a 2 hour journey from Bristol airport through rising floodwaters, I went through my own front door and was overtaken by joy at being home. I am still feeling the ripples of that original swelling of emotion as I write this. So, rather than write about Rome, and San Giovenale, and the fun of being abroad, I thought I'd settle down by the fire and blog about home.

The glories of Rome- peeking out through the columns of the BSR.

 The funny thing is, I've only lived here about 6 weeks. The house is old- built at some point in the 17th century- and has funny beams, crazy hidey holes and a living room that used to be a piggery. One of our neighbours was born in the end bedroom and told us her parents kept turkeys in the room below. She's our nearest neighbour, about 200 yards up the lane (and she's lovely). Other than that, to get to a neighbour you have to cross the ford or go over the hill to the village. You'd have thought that with the weather we had last week, I'd be dying to get back to Rome, or anywhere where the only way out wasn't through a raging stream of waist-high water (the photo here is after the ford had died down for 24 hours). Somewhere warm, surrounded by delightful people, not alone in a rain soaked valley in a creaking old house moaning with the wind.

Instead, I loved the storm. I loved the grumpy moany house. I loved the streams of water rushing through our garden to reach the muddy torrent preventing me from leaving to get to the shops or elsewhere (honestly, there was half a telegraph pole stuck in the bridge, it was MAD). I dashed to the woodshed to replenish our fuel, made an enormous chilli con carne and basked in the satisfaction of being in a place which makes me so simply and utterly happy.

THEN I got thinking about homes in the past. This was not entirely unconnected to a lecture I gave to first-year students this week on place and space. It's a lecture I relish- two fantastically interesting anthropological case studies*, and a chance to really challenge some of the top-down viewpoints you can get in archaeology. What makes a space a place? The same thing that makes a house a home- the individual people who live there, go there, use the space, mark it out, stamp around, love it, hate it, sleep in it, get drunk in it, have sex in it, go to the toilet in it, cook in it, meet people in it, and feel in it. It's easy for us as archaeologists to provide a functional explanation for space- this was a house, this was a grain store. Sometimes it's more difficult- a problem most obvious in interpretations of big flashy monuments that get gently categorised as "ritual" spaces alone. But I think we should challenge ourselves to do more, push further- what are the things that people actually do in a space, and how can we reconstruct their relationships with a building or a landscape?

The work of Penelope Allison on Roman houses is inspirational in this sense- using small finds to really interrogate how people used buildings**. She is, of course, not the only archaeologist to think about space on a human, personal scale- while there's a certain Marmite effect, phenomenological philosophy has really opened up new ways of considering the experience of place in the past. Chris Tilley's "A Phenomenology of Landscape" was a book I read as an undergraduate and marvelled at- I still think it's bold and brilliant. For me, the key message of this book is the realisation of just how patronising it is to treat people in the past as automata, to refuse to see them as complex, feeling, living humans just like us. It's an almost post-colonial message: the past may be "a foreign country" where people do things differently, but that's no reason to reduce the inhabitants of this foreign space to dehumanised natives, living in a land which is totally alien to the civilised country we ourselves inhabit.

Stockland Great Castle bank'n'ditch

So, as I revel in the beautiful view, the sturdy walls and the feelings that my new home gives me, I wonder about the people who lived here before. Not just in my house, but in the whole valley. There are two Iron Age hillforts just across the river from me- I can see one from the bathroom window (it makes cleaning your teeth much more interesting) and one, which still has a lovely bank and ditch preserved, just out of sight. I can never know how the people who lived there felt about their landscape, about their homes, about their place in the world, or whether they would even characterise these things as important. But in the remnants of the hours of work they put in to defining their world, marking out their space and making a presence for themselves here, I suspect that the connections between this place and its inhabitants were forged as strongly as those I've built over my short time here, even if I can never know exactly what those links were.

What do you think? What do you feel when you go home, or away?

Sunshine and sheep after the storm...

* The first one is a real classic that I love using for teaching- Pierre Boudieu's structural analysis of the Kabyle house. The key point of the case study is that houses may look simple, but are actually really carefully curated and structured. You can read about it in "The Algerians" or in "Outline of a Theory of Practice". The other case study looks at space on a wider scale and how it plays a part in the creation of rituals- I wanted to introduce students to the concept of liminality without dressing it up in an ooooh-how-mysterious way. Victor Turner's "The Forest of Symbols" presents the Ndembu ritual of Mukanda (circumcision) in a fantastically coherent way- he demonstrates how space demarcates each stage of the rite, and each stage of being for the initiates.

**Have a look at her "The Archaeology of Household Activities" or see her online work on Pompeii at

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Bone Post: The Etruscans (A Very Very Short Introduction!)

If you are reading this blog and you know me, follow me on Twitter, have seen me talk at a conference or spotted any of my "online presence" (ahem), you will know that my research is focused on the Etruscans. I say my research is focused on the Etruscans, but it quite often feels that much of my life is focused on these people, who I think about, read about, write about and dream about at least daily. The dreaming is particularly unnerving- these past people have made their way so deep into my subconscious that they come streaming out at me in my sleep. It is therefore inevitable that a huge portion of this blog will end up being Etruscan related- objects, sites, interpretations of other scholars, my own thoughts. Indeed, this blog itself wouldn't exist at all without my Etruscan obsession.

Here are some bones I spotted in an Etruscan tomb (don't worry, they are actually the remains of an unfortunate sheep) from a site I visited at the weekend with some friends/colleagues/fellow Etruscophiles (more on both the site and the fellows another day).

 So, this week, I wanted to blog a bit of an introduction to the posts which will be building and growing over the coming months about Etruscan things. A lovely lady on Twitter yesterday asked me "Why Etruscans?" The short (and incredibly biased and unprofessional) answer to this is BECAUSE THEY WERE AMAZING. The long answer demands some facts and some context for this personal obsession. There are lots of Etruscan websites online (I will review these another day- some are hilarious, some are rage inducing) and even more myths about Etruscans which seem to have been absorbed into the modern psyche through ancient texts and misconceptions (this will also be the subject of a more detailed post). It's almost impossible to state any basic "fact" about the Etruscans without prompting a huge argument, and I think that this, more than anything, is one of the things I love about studying them. It is also one of the things that makes this study incredibly hard.

So, rolling up my sleeves, clearing my throat, who were the Etruscans?

The Etruscans lived in central Italy, between the rivers Tiber and Arno- an area equivalent to modern Tuscany, Umbria and northern Lazio. However, their area of influence spread as far north as Venice and as far south as Naples. The origins of the Etruscans are often described as mysterious, but it is now more or less commonly accepted that their civilization developed from indigenous Italian cultures of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. There are certainly settlements on sites which later developed into Etruscan cities (such as Tarquinia, Vulci, Veii and Cerveteri) from the 10th century BC, and the style of metalwork and ceramics from this period, termed the Villanovan after a famous early site,  is certainly an important influence on later Etruscan objects. I will not go into the alternative origins of the Etruscans in this post- suffice to say that there is a suggestion of emigration from the Near East into Italy in the 8th century BC.

This suggestion of people moving into Italy from Lydia (modern Turkey) is associated with the appearance of Eastern-style pottery, jewellery and iconography, found in incredibly rich elite burials. There are objects in these tombs from all over Europe and North Africa- amber, ivory, ostrich eggs, pottery from Greece and Egyptian scarabs. Rather than thinking in terms of migration, I prefer to think of this period as one in which Etruscans accessed the Mediterranean marketplace fully for the first time, taking up a postion as traders and merchants (or pirates if you're Greek) which would continue for centuries. It is likely that ingots and ore from the rich iron reserves of central Italy and the expert bronze workings of Etruria were the objects being traded for these Eastern objects. This pattern of trade and expansion continues into what is termed the Archaic period of Etruscan history, beginning in around 650 BC. At this point, rock cut tombs for a far higher proportion of the population provide evidence for increased availability of imported and previously elite goods, and this time is one of expansion in Etruscan settlements. Temples and sanctuaries decorated with exquisite terracotta detailing were built, and burials were furnished in places with sculptures and paintings (like this one from the Tomb of the Funeral Bed, Tarquinia).

This was all a little too good to last- by the later half of the 5th century BC there seems to have been a crisis in Etruria, with cities declining, perhaps as a result of trade restrictions, natural disasters or warfare. While Etruscan culture would recover into a flourishing Hellenistic incarnation, society and material culture were permanently changed. The sack of Veii by Rome in 396 BC marked the beginning of a period of increased conflict between Etruscans and Romans, and by 283 BC the Romans had dominated what was once the heartland of the Etruscans, whose culture became enshrined in Roman legend. Supposedly by the 1st century BC Etruscan religion was a source of great interest in Rome, and the famous "Ides of March" prophecy to Julius Caesar was made by a person of Etruscan descent.

That's a whistlestop tour of Etruscan archaeology. There are (well, there probably are) a million tiny pieces in this summary that you could pick up and run with. Every sentence I've written hides a fascinating series of objects, tales, lives and experiences. These are what will make up most of the "Bones" posts on this blog, filling in the gaps left wide open in this initial statement.

In answer to "Why Etruscans?" I'd like to post a photo of an object that made me grin like a loon when I spotted it in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome this morning. How can you not love a culture who made this grotesque little decoration on a pot?

Do/did you have any preconceived ideas about the Etruscans?

Have you seen any of the other Etruscan content online?

Have you been to the Villa Giulia Museum?

What culture/period/person from the past most interests you?

PS- Further to last week's post on looking down... here are some feet whose owners hurtled past myself and some friends while we were standing near the edge of a cliff looking at tombs. Cinghiale, or wild boar- terrifying and beautiful at the same time, they certainly left their mark on the earth!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Pots Post: Looking at the Floor

This is a little bit of a soppy post. The "Pots" posts here are for things that are everyday, so I thought I'd start off with something that I do everyday. I look at the floor. I don't know if this is something unique to archaeologists (although my family certainly think so), but when I walk around, I tend to notice things on the ground. Of course, I love looking up at the sky, trees, buildings and not bumping into people, but the floor seems to draw my gaze more often than not. This odd activity has its perks, particularly at this time of year. You notice patterns and objects that other people step over: fallen leaves, strangely posed rubbish, prints in mud. You also avoid treading in dog poo and/or nasty puddles, or have a better chance of doing this.

I'm in Rome at the moment  working at the British School (there'll be posts about this aplenty). Yesterday I snuck away from my desk and my work to clear my head in the Villa Borghese park. Here are some things that I noticed on the ground there, and thought I'd take photos of. My faithful old wellies are in a couple of the pictures- they frame my gaze as I look at the earth.

 I noticed the horse shoes in this dried out mud, alongside the horizontal pine needles. The scuffing out and retainment of the prints reminds me of just how ephemeral the traces of passage can be. Some of these horseshoes were deep and pitted, while others had almost been swallowed up again by the dust. The idea of horses in such an urban setting is also quite appealing- these were well off the track of the carriage rides you see advertised in central Rome.

This was the first photo I took from the walk. I liked the bark chip on the floor, alongside the small number of leaves. So many leaves are still on the trees here in Rome, while at home in Devon the trees are almost bare, with the rooks' nests exposed in the branches. The single green leaf amongs the brown dead humus and man made bark chip stood out. 

This is another example of fallen leaves- these tiny yellow and green pieces were flashes of colour on the path. So bright and tiny, yet arranged almost in a spiralling swirl entwined with darker patches of bark. The rotten leaves that had already fallen were dried out and grey, with tiny pices of stone providing a pointillistic effect, if you want to see it there.

I don't know whether doing this is a hangover from my experience of grown-up survey archaeology, or the remnants of hopes of discovery and instant fame from a childhood spent wanting to find Iron Age glory in the dust of parks in Hertfordshire and the sulking of enforced walks. Frankly, when it lets me notice things like these tiny compositions made from the interaction between people, animals and the world of the park, I'm not sure I care. The ground is as much a part of Villa Borghese as the stunning pine and cyprus trees, the lake with its' rowing boats, and the faux and real Roman architecture.

Do you look at the floor? Do you notice things on the ground? Do you think this is weird? Let me know what you think. I promise the next "Pots" post will be more prosaic...

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stones: Academic Job Applications

This is my first "Stones" post, and it's on a subject that everyone who works in academia has to deal with at one time or another. Just how can you squash all your passion and ideas onto a few sheets of paper, or into a 1000 word research proposal? How can you express your own brilliance without sounding too cocksure? How many publications is "enough" for the post you are applying for? Sometimes it feels like the answers to these questions are "You can't" or "More than you've got." I meet a lot of fellow early career scholars and postgraduate students who are wrestling with applications, or who have come up against them in the past. The response seems to be generally negative, until suddenly someone gets a position, and is then a source of unbridled joy- until the short term contract runs out, and the process starts all over again.

As you might be able to tell, I have started to submit applications for positions starting after my PhD is completed. So, I thought it would be a good time to think about the positive aspects of academic job applications- what the experience of putting them together over the past few weeks has taught me. Yes, they were sometimes sticky to work on, and the guilt over pestering referees is still lying heavy on my subconscious, but they've actually been a fantastic exercise, for the following reasons.

1) Applications teach you to be concise. Less is often more. If you can't point out the key components of a project which make it uniquely perfect for support in 1000 words, who's to say you can in 2000? I found one application particularly difficult as it asked for 600 words of research proposal. Accustomed to 1000, I struggled, but I did it. And I think the 600 word version is actually better in some ways. Applications are a chance to hone your "elevator pitch," shaping and clarifying your research plan. This type of writing style is also an asset in other areas- who wants to read a 50 page journal article that could have been 30 pages if the waffle was cut out? Playing cat and mouse with delete can be fun, and it's good practice for editing.

2) Research proposals make you full of excitement about your own research! I am planning a post-doctoral project that I can't wait to begin. Each job application reminds me how strong this piece of work could be, and how keen I am to start working on it. The research proposal maps out the next three years of my academic life- what I will be doing each summer, the journal articles and monographs that I want to produce. Writing this down formally and seriously considering how I will spend my time gives me a blueprint for the future, for what I want to do and where I want to be- and that's pretty damn exciting.

3) While filling you with excitement about post-docs, job applications make you feel pretty blimmin strongly about finishing your PhD. It needs to be done before any of these fabulous new projects can start, and in applying for post-doc (clue's in the name) jobs, you need to be certain that that thesis is going to be in on time. I am full of determination to get my PhD done and dusted before my funding runs out, so I can start a new job straight away. When I go back to writing up after a job app hiatus of a couple of days, I find myself writing better, and staying motivated for longer.

4) Motivation isn't just about gritting your teeth and getting on with things. I want to blog about this another day, but for now, I want to focus on the importance of self-esteem. You have to believe in yourself to get anything done in academe or any other job you care to name. Of course, you don't want to be an over-bearing, arrogant twit. But you need to believe in yourself and your research, believe that you honestly are a strong candidate and good researcher. Seeing your achievements written down, publications, awards, presentations and all, is a lovely moment of self-recognition. Yes, you did that. All of it.

5) Finally, the process teaches you who your friends are. The support and companionship of colleagues, the willingness of referees. It's amazing how much people are willing to give of their time and effort to help you earn a crust. To me, at any rate, that's pretty special. Especially when you haven't got any of the posts you apply for after six months and you feel rotten, the people who are there to pick you back up again are those you need in your life. They are wonderful.

If and when the rejection letters come, I'm going to make myself look back at this post. It's full of optimism. I'll probably be grumpy, hurt and frustrated, and the words I wrote will feel stupid and irrelevant. In the meantime, every crossable part of my body is crossed.

How have you approached academic job applications? Any strategies to share? Horror stories to tell? I'd love to hear.

(Apologies for the lack of piccies in this post, but I did NOT want to photocopy my application forms. Look, here's a snapshot of the Acropolis instead. It's made of hard stones put together into something incredible).