Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas 2013: #mulledwines and Ian Hodder

Hello all, a Merry Christmas to you. I've blogged for work about some Christmas festivals in the past, if you fancy a read of that here for some classy blogging (ahem) about pagan Roman and Norse goddesses that got turned into witches and child-eating trolls (no, really) after the Christian takeover.

But what I really want to blog about is that one of the most irritating, senseless, sexist bullshit songs of the year has had a Christmas makeover... and is now almost utterly delightful.

Mulled Wines... by Greg James and Chris Smith, off of BBC Radio 1. If the link doesn't work (and I suspect it won't as it's being rubbish) click here to have a watch.

However, just so as you know, while the original song drove me nuts, one single lyric saved it for me- because it made it so funny I couldn't help gurgling like a happy toddler each time this overplayed piece of disgusting misogynistic nonsense came on the radio.

This redeeming line? "Try to domesticate ya, cos you're an animal, baby it's in your nature."

Okay, maybe this is one of the worst lines in the whole sorry business, as it reduces women to animals (huge rage, not ok, fury burning fury). UNTIL it made me think of Ian Hodder's Domus theory. The idea that Neolithic humans had to deliberately make a decision to make the wild world of animals and plants safe, domesticated and everyday. So everytime over the last year I've heard that piece of shit song, I have a terrifying mental picture of Hodder himself singing out to a recalcitrant aurochs and waving an improvised halter around... on top of a Catalhoyuk style house.

So yeah- that mental picture, and saving you from an impending hernia each time Blurred Lines gets played (even though it should have been put in a bin long ago), is my Christmas present to you.

In the meantime, #mulledwines. And Happy Christmas. See you in 2014.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ashes: When Things Go Wrong

I have just watched my beloved England lose the Ashes to Australia. I am very aware that it's only a game, it's 22 grown men chasing a little red ball and throwing it at some sticks, trying to hit it with a big stick. Yet I am pretty gutted right now, and I am sure lots of other archaeological cricket fans will be too.

There are lots of aspects of England's loss- and I think all of them have a message for those of us who work in other areas. As a New Year approaches, and the entire archaeological community of the UK heads off to TAG, I want to briefly think about why things go wrong, and what to take from England's loss and apply to archaeological practice.

Basically, I think four things contributed to the loss of the Ashes:

1) Over-training for the wrong things

I am convinced that England's downfall is at least partly due to an obsession that coaches, pundits and players have had with working on batting against spin. Tours in India, Dubai and Sri Lanka exposed a vulnerability- so quite rightly everyone worked hard to combat this. Only they forgot to work equally hard on pace and bounce- the bowling skills that have skuttled England down under. This happens in archaeology and academic life too- how many times have you spotted a flaw, then worked and worked on it, only to find that something you hadn't even noticed was more important? This happened to some extent in my Viva- I had been very worried about one aspect of the thesis in the days before, and had prepared hard for questions on that. Then when the examiners picked up on something else, I was surprised. When approaching a problem, and assessing your own performance, maybe it's important to look at the whole, and go for a balanced approach to training yourself to be a better archaeologist- one that focuses not just on what you're not great at, but at what you have been good at before. Don't let it slip, because it might just make the difference. Which brings me on to...

2) Complacency. A large amount of England's travails have been caused by a softly-softly victory last summer. The scoreline flattered England, and made them feel that the tour in Australia would be easier than it has been. No matter how much you bang on about taking every game as it comes, if you feel that you won easily, or did really well without trying, complacency has its foot firmly in the door. Then when things do go wrong, it's too late- you are smacked around the face (or on the helment by Mitchell Johnson at 90mph) with the reality that you aren't really up for this, because it's not as easy as you thought it would be. I've definitely done this- cruised along, thinking everything would be fine and my work was just great. It takes a kick up the arse to snap out of this, and I'm grateful to the various kickers over the years- and none of them have a terrifying moustache. 

3) Exhaustion. Don't try and do too much. Even if you are feeling on top of the world. Back to back Ashes series, after a knackering winter in India last year (an incredible series win perhaps caused by that over-focus on spin I was banging on about earlier), was always going to be a tough ask. The complacency may have masked this for a while, but if you are physically and mentally tired, the cracks are going to start gaping open in your performance, whatever you do. You can't respond as promptly to pressure, you can't pull yourself out of a hole. Everyone needs rest- and I mean real rest, not fevered twitchy I-should-be-working rest. If you can't do this, you will end up with...

4) Injuries. A bad back (Alastair Cook). Calf and lower leg problems (Matt Prior). Burnout, seemingly endless colds and flu (archaeologists everywhere). You can't be good at what you do if you're sick as a dog or in constant pain. So don't try. Rest, recuperate, don't feel guilty, get better.

Four mistakes- England made them so that we don't have to. I hope- I will definitely do my best not to fall victim to any of these in 2014.

For now, I'm pretty happy that I managed to get cricket and archaeology mashed up on this blog- though I'm not sure you will be.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Place: Ghost Towns

Like I said in my last post, I've been off and about the ancient world of late. Just over a month ago, I went to the Bay of Naples- somewhere I've wanted to go for a long time, but always been too lazy to get to at the beginning or end of an excavation season in Tuscany. Well, it was worth the wait. I got to go with a group of delightful work clients, and a lovely academic, Professor Emeritus Bill Manning from Cardiff (and his gorgeous wife, Maureen).

Very I Claudius...

Before even going to Pompeii, I was in raptures over visiting Paestum- and seeing the paintings from the Tomb of the Diver for real. I could have spent most of my life in the little museum there- just gazing at these Etruscan-but-not-Etruscan things. The temples, too, were fabulous- with the great umbrella pines leering next to them, and the clear blue sky above. It was a great start to the week. Maybe too great- to be honest, the next day's visit to Pompeii was not how I'd expected. Paestum had been almost empty- there was a snake crawling along one of the ruins, it was that quiet.

By contrast, Pompeii was RAMMED. We snuck around the back, and entered via the amphitheatre. It was amazing, but full of floodwater and podgy but sad looking stray dogs.

Then we wandered along some insulae- I don't think I was really taking it in at this point. I was so busy thinking about the present- the day ahead, hoping everyone would get lunch ok, hoping that the site would stay quiet. Then little things started to hit me. The bars. They were so familiar- a strip of boozers like those I used to wobble down as a student, playing stupid games of pub golf. I thought of them full of people, laughing and chatting, pushing and jostling. I couldn't get my head around what had happened to those people- until I saw the casts. Now, I'm not usually someone who is against the display of human remains. But to see the contorted body of a child reaching for its agonised mother, rendered in plaster, being snapped at by a thousand tourists, kind of upset me. There is so much power in these casts. Perhaps too much- the child and its mother didn't feel like people- they felt like a show. And, on reflection, that is so damn wrong. I felt more and more confused as the day went on- the buildings were amazing, but all I could think of was the contrast between the archaeological pleasure and the utter pain of Pompeii's original population. Then we went for lunch at the Autogrill- not quite garum on toast.

The day at Pompeii was great, if weird. And I took some lovely photos (if I say so myself). But it made me nervous about going to Herculaneum. If the preservation of Pompeii had freaked me out so much as to induce intense archaeological guilt, what would 2 storey buildings and boathouses full of skeletons do?

The fateful boathouses...

As it turns out, the complete opposite. I loved Herculaneum. It was pouring with rain- there were floods of water tumbling down the steep entrance to the site. I took the precaution of wearing flipflops, and my feet were soon soaked and spotted with little pieces of ash- something I've only just thought about. The buildings didn't have the same mournful air as Pompeii- that sense of a tourist resort in January, sad and bleak yet still busy- in spite of the huge overlay of ash that was so painfully obvious. While at Pompeii I felt like a voyeur, in other people's houses with a crowd of nosy busybodies, at Herculaneum I felt completely at ease. I'm not sure why- maybe the state of preservation and lack of crowds muffled the effect of the ghost town. Also, the victims of Herculaneum were safely roped off- dignified in their skeletal form, without the fleshy horror of their final torture.

I've been thinking about Pompeii and Herculaneum a lot this week- mostly due to the trouble relentlessly bubbling away in the archaeological organisation of the sites. These incredible places are the ultimate cursed blessing- from the preservation/destruction moment to the politics and pleasure of the present day. I don't know what the answer is, to my own feelings or the more serious issues facing Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites in Italy in an uncertain financial and political climate. But I'm damned glad I went.

Restoration work at the Villa of the Mysteries...

Have you been to Pompeii? What did it feel like for you? Am I just a soppy oversensitive loser? Get in touch please, do let me know.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Blogging Carnival and Some Reflection

Hello all- I cannot belive it has been almost two months since I last blogged. Well, that's not strictly true. Since I last blogged here. I have been blogging twice a week for the last four months for my employers, rounding up archaeology news and presenting it in a fun way (I hope!). You can go back over those posts, and those of my colleagues, here. However, what I haven't been doing is my usual ranting and raving over archaeology on TV, whizzing around landscapes taking photos, and sharing my research with y'all. Well, I have been doing those things- but in the privacy of my living room, leaving the photos on my phone, and working my arse off trying to get things published and out into the world through traditional media. So the blog has suffered- and I'm sorry.

In light of how frankly pants I have been, I was very pleased and surprised to receive a Twitter message from Doug Rocks-Macqueen, of Doug's Archaeology blog, asking me to participate in his blogging carnival. I love his blog, and read it regularly, so it was a real delight to be asked. There will be a session on Blogging Archaeology at the 2014 SAA Conference- and unfortunately Doug won't be there. So he will be posting a question each month, and asking people to blog an answer- all questions relating to blogging practice in archaeology. His first question was sickeningly spot on for me. Here it is:

Why blogging? Why are you still blogging? If you have stopped blogging, why did you stop? 

Well, unbelievably, I think it has been a year since I started this blog. If the combo of that anniversary and that question don't push me into some reflection then nothing will. So, I will be honest and think back over the first year of this blog, and maybe into the future.

Why blogging?

I started this blog because I was frightened. I had just moved to the middle of nowhere, where I knew very few people- I moved away from a supportive kind group of office mates, to do the writing up of my thesis on my own. I couldn't just wander into work and yowl and moan at my long suffering friends about archaeology, I couldn't get overexcited and share ideas every day. I was frightened I would be lonely, frightened I wouldn't be able to think, frightened I would over think.

I was also pretty frightened I wouldn't get a job. 400 applicants for a single role? What did I have that made me different? Some nice little book chapters, a journal article, the same glowing references as everyone else, all of it was pretty samey. There was no way I would get my research published in time for me to have it as a cushion to land on when I fell out of my PhD funding and into the big bad world. So, how to publish my thoughts, and give potential employers something to look at other than my (until recently horrendous) Academia page. To show them I could write, I could think, I was a real person.

Why are you still blogging?

So, basically, I started this blog for entirely selfish reasons. I kept it going for purely selfish reasons too- but not the same ones. I found the release of writing (relatively) short, sharp pieces to be pure pleasure after toiling away at the coalface of my thesis. I would come back more refreshed, better able to assess my own work. And I met so many interesting people! People would commment (in teeny numbers), tweet me or let me know they liked how I was thinking, or didn't, or whatever. It was fun to have ALREADY had a detailed conversation with someone, to be able to join in serious debates like #freearchaeology and mess around with like-minded folks.

Why have you stopped blogging?

I didn't mean to!! Honestly, I was all fired up and ready to blog about a huge range of different things (some of which I will do, promise). Partly I think I had begun tying myself in knots with blog "series"- even the initial "Pots, places, stones, bones" themes of each post were starting to become a bit constricting after a year. So, I'm not going to throw them out, but I'm going to be more flexible about what I blog- so the title isn't an excuse. I also think that two of my main scaredy cat reasons for starting blogging had been taken away- I have a lovely job (where this blog was mentioned in my interview- Jesus, it worked!) and lovely office mates to chat with once again. Plus, blogging twice a week as I was, and leaving the house at 6:30 am and getting home at 7:15 makes for fantastic excuses not to just site down and write.

So, no more excuses. I want to blog from joy rather than fear (pass me the puke bucket). I don't need to be scared- I can just blog because it's fun, I like talking to all of you, and I like sharing ideas. So crack on another year of PPSB, and thanks very much Doug, for a much needed (if unintended) kick up the backside.

PS- photos are from my trip to Campania- Paestum and Pompeii. Which would be a perfect "Place" post. Maybe next week.....

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Stone: Levels of Sexism?

As you can probably tell, based on previous posts (especially that one last weekend), I'm not someone who enjoys being patronised. People treating me poorly because of what's between my legs (and maybe those two things on my upper body) drives me up the wall. It's not just a selfish thing, I hope- I can rage and stomp and scream just from reading an absurd statement that denigrates all of us in possession of female minds or bodies (like the one this week by a Saudi cleric stating that women cause damage to themselves and their ovaries- clearly the most important body part- by driving and giving themselves a modicum of independence). As I wrote last week, it's even worse when this is happening closer to home- "Now we have to listen to the ladies." At an academic conference with a large number of female presenters. Worse: "we know women were only important for their dowries and their weaving skills." I'll let that settle for a moment.

Yet, sometimes, someone behaves in a way that's sexist and it doesn't irritate me. I don't know if this makes me a bad feminist, a traitor to the cause, or just two-faced. But I had an incident of this kind a couple of months ago that I have been meaning to share but I couldn't think of the right occasion or link to my professional life. You see, I love cricket. If you know me offline, (or even follow me on Twitter) then you've probably clocked this. And one of the highest echelons of cricket is to join the ranks of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) who control the rules and dictate the spirit of the game. Those ranks are mostly male, mostly over 50, and mostly rather conservative. I was proposed as a member by a lovely family friend, who knew I would love to be involved in the organisation that lies at the heart of the game I love. Another kind family friend agreed to sponsor my application. What happened next was the interview.

I dolled up in a dress of my mother's that was too big for me yet suitably sensible and classic. I entered the hallowed soil that is Lord's cricket ground in London, chattered to the receptionist, eyed up the small museum. Then the interviewer arrived- an older gentleman in his sixties, I'd guess. His opening shot "Ah, you must be the archaeologist, I can tell by your figure." I can't decide if he would have made the same remark to a male- I reckon he probably would. Either way, it didn't send me into the stratosphere. "Come upstairs with me," he said, before turning to a handsome young man obviously waiting to be interviewed as well. "I bet you wish you could say that to her." Definitely not something to say about a bloke, although I'm sure it was intended as a compliment. I kept "charming smile number 1" fixed on my face and mentally raised my eyebrows and allowed the steam to begin seeping from my ears.

We went through the Long Room (google it if you don't know- one of the most famous spaces in any sporting venue in the world) where I gazed longingly at the pitch and even more longingly up the stairs to the changing rooms, although I knew they were empty of the tall, gorgeous fast bowlers my husband is jealous of. We went in and we sat down. He had held open every door. He pulled out the chair for me and stood until I was seated. He poured me water. And the conversation began.

It started with a question about whether I played cricket, as "the gels" were doing so very well these days. I don't- my record is getting all 3 of an ex's brothers (and him) out in two overs in a fiery garden game. We went on to whether my husband played, and whether I made teas- "hard to find enough ladies to help" (disapprovingly). Very quickly we were arguing- about whether or not Nick Compton, an England player at the time, should be dropped. I said not, he said yes. He looked tickled by this point and started to visibly relax, while by now I was letting his earlier remarks go and just enjoying chatting to a fellow fan. We went on to argue about the merits of various players, before turning to rugby. The half hour was over too quickly- the young man was shown through by an anxious receptionist, and was told "he can wait- I want to finish talking to this lovely young lady." The older gentleman signed me onto the waiting list with a flourish and a grin, and showed me out with all the over-politeness of my arrival. When I left, all the sexist indiscretions and relics of a bygone age that had peppered my time there had become funny, rather than rage inducing.

That makes me feel slightly bad, looking back on it. I'm not sure why I chose to let those remarks go, why it was funny rather than infuriating. Why did behaviour not a million miles away from this so upset me at the conference last week? I think I've worked it out. The gentleman who interviewed me at the MCC took time to listen to my opinions, weighed them and decided to respect me and my views, even if his opening lines were inappropriate attempts at charm. The highly respected miscreants of the conference did no such thing, snorting and chatting and sniggering through any female paper and refusing to even pretend to engage with the arguments made within them. Are there levels of sexism? Am I a bad feminist for feeling like this, having double standards? I hope not. Because I will always remember my MCC interview with fondness while I suspect that I will never again think of those individuals whose work I had previously respected with anything but straight up indignant fury.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Pots: Everyday Irritations and Extraordinary Discoveries (Rant Warning)

I went to a conference last weekend, and gave a paper. I was happy and excited to meet up with friends and colleagues- the organisers are delightful, and I was hoping to hear some of the most interesting research on Etruscan archaeology. Sadly what I heard, in a lot of papers, was the same old culture-history interpretations, with people equating pots with particular “cultures” and the presence of particular objects in funerary assemblages as obvious and unquestionable evidence of gender, ethnicity and all sorts of other complex categories. Fine, fine- so be it, Etruscology remains firmly imbued in the politics and ideas of the 1950s and 1960s and to some extent probably won’t change any time soon. As long as I can keep pushing for new ideas, developed in the sixty years of archaeological engagement with social theory and anthropology from then to now, I don’t mind people keeping to traditional views. I may disagree with them on a fairly fundamental level, but that’s my opinion developed from my history as a product of a highly theoretical university and a free-thinking doctoral supervisor. What I do mind is individuals talking over young scholars, patronising even senior female academics in a highly sexist manner and treating discussions as an opportunity to hold court.

While I was going mad with frustration and being too cowardly to comment on these negative behaviours, however, really exciting Etruscan archaeology was taking place in the field. On that very same Saturday of last week, an intact tomb from a necropolis at Tarquinia was uncovered. I cannot overstate how rare and incredible and amazing this is. So many of the tombs the Etruscans painstakingly created for their dead have been looted- the profession of the tombarolo, or tomb robber, can be lucrative and has a long heritage. Most Etruscan tombs were cleaned out over the intervening centuries, although some have been emptied tragically recently, with artefacts removed and human remains left strewn around in a mess. Yet this tomb was magically, miraculously intact. 
All the objects were inside, in situ around the skeleton as they had been placed 2,600 years ago in the 7th century B.C.E. Lying on the funeral benches were the remains of an Etruscan person, accompanied by a large amount of pottery, some jewellery, a bronze vessel and an iron spearhead.

Now, this is all great. But that spearhead (I'm blaming YOU spearhead) seems to have caused some problems. Yes, this is a rich Etruscan burial- as intimated by the archaeologist in charge, Alessandro Mandolesi, who described the remains as those of an “upper class individual.” Yet all the media coverage has leapt to a conclusion I critiqued some months ago- how many times do I need to yell that this is not a “prince.”  Using that terminology is, as I have ranted before, an example of na├»ve, lazy attempts to put modern labels onto the past. I’ve said that before and it’s even more irritating when this happens in your own archaeological back yard. Yes, the burial was found near to a tomb known as the “Queen’s Tomb.” But the tomb is only known as such due to previous archaeological assumptions! Both the person buried in the “Queen’s Tomb” and the newly discovered “Prince,” even if DNA testing ties the two together, should not be considered royals, with all the modern day baggage that entails. 

Trying to tie that royal label into texts written centuries later (which is what has happened) only serves to exacerbate the situation. Yes, a King, supposedly from Tarquinia is recorded as having ruled over Rome in the 6th century B.C. But that doesn’t mean this burial is connected to him, it doesn’t mean the individual is a relative of this figure (who may not even be entirely real) and it only provides a tiny shred of information about Etruscan social structures, interpreted through the eyes of Roman authors!

Even worse than these right royal assumptions is the individual is being described as a “warrior” prince. That’s the spearhead’s fault. Not a symbol of masculinity, not a token gesture to ancestral warrior identity, nope. That spearhead means that the individual buried in the grave a) must be male; b) must be royal and c) must be a warrior hero. All this from one object that could have a myriad of different meanings. I notice that the pots have been conveniently shoved to one side- he’s not a “banqueter prince” or a “glutton prince” or a “drunken prince.” No- our own cultural values that prioritise male aggression jump straight on that spearhead and use it to transform this extraordinary tomb into an example of the same tired interpretations that were driving me so crazy last weekend.

 I don’t want to be negative. I don’t want to be ungrateful for this discovery or the chance to attend that conference. But until we are honest about the limitations of these approaches and the mismatch between them and the rest of the archaeological community, all the intact tombs in the world are not going to bring Etruscan archaeology into step with our peers in other areas of research.

To be fair, at least (unlike the Poggio Civitate infant remains stories) all the media I’ve seen has actually got something right and called the discovery “Etruscan” and not “Roman.” There’s still time though.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Stones: Don't be so bloody processual!

Your days are numbered, Wheeler! That dashing moustache won't save you!

Well, do. Cos it actually gets things done.

It's been a while since I wrote a "Stones" post, so I hope you are all excited and thrilled to be about to read a chunk of archaeological theory. I know I am! In the last post on Levi-Strauss I arrived at a depressing conclusion- we can never shed our skins, our histories, our biases and preferences and take a good clear look at the past. There's not really such a thing as truth, just opinion.

Except, well, a school of archaeological theory that grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s says that there is. It's called processualism- because it uses structured, logical, sort of scientific processes to find out the most secure information possible about the past. Now, a lot of people who continue to employ this kind of archaeological theory are the people that go "Ugh. Theory is pointless- what a waste of time. It's just idiots arguing about semiotics, when they could be doing good science." But do you know what? They themselves are proponents of a this particular school of thought and way of doing things- they are evangelists for processualism as a way of thinking about the past.

But how do you apply science to archaeology, and call it theory? In a world of radiocarbon dating, intricate osteological analysis, CT scans and all that jazz (let alone the world's most exciting archaeological science, consulting the vole clock*), using new methods to interrogate the past feels second nature. But think back to the first Stones post, and the second- go outside your own head and into the late 1950s. This was a time in which the majority of archaeologists lined up rows of similar pots and called them cultures, arguing for diffusion of ideas and the steady evolution of culture. It took some bright, rebellious thinkers to break away from this kind of practice, dragging archaeology out of Victorian speculation and into the light of the scientific and technological revolution that was coming.

One of Binford's amazing drawings- the anatomy of a kill site

Chief of these young rebels (strange though it seems now) was an American called Lewis Binford. I was gutted when he died in 2011. Binford in later life was kind of a big deal- and rightly so. Because when he was a graduate student, he got very fed up very quickly with the kind of culture history being peddled as archaeology- particularly after early radiocarbon dates proved that most of this speculation was wildly inaccurate. And, unlike me and thousands of other moaning PhD students, Binford actually did something about it. He was interested in the Mousterian, a period of the Upper Paleolithic. But rather than drawing endless pieces of flint and arguing about the position of hearths, he wanted to know why these objects were made, and how they related to the people who produced them. Binford's thought was that the environment of Ice Age Europe had encouraged the creation of particular kinds of site- but how could he make this argument? By going, in 1969, to an area of North America with similar climactic conditions, and seeing how people their used tools, lived in their landscape and organised their seasonal lifestyles. The results were fantastic- assemblages and sites, seen in a similar context, suddenly made sense for the first time.  Binford's research methodology more or less changed the archaeological world. He made the connection between archaeological study and what people actually do- their behaviour, and he proved beyond doubt that sociologists and social anthropologists had a great deal to offer.

Top bloke, Lewis Binford.

Ironically, by developing a more objective approach to archaeology, and spawing the processual movement that adopted his ideas and can be found in any pub bashing poor old Ian Hodder, Binford also laid the ground for modern archaeological theory. He made it safe and acceptable for archaeologists to engage with the ideas of philosophers and thinkers from outside our world of pots, stones and bones. So in the next few Stones posts, I'm going to look at a series of sociologists, anthopologists and thinkers, all of whom have influenced archaeology- but none of whom would have had a chance without Lew Binford and his ability to get up off his arse and change the world.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Bone: Digging Up Stuff

Thank you all so much for your lovely words (mostly not in blog comments but elsewhere) and for all the support that flowed in after last week's post about starting my new job. Another week has gone by and I'm still delighted- it is Bank Holiday Monday and I can't help wishing (in a sneaky little geeky way) that I'm at work! What a loser! Anyway, as it is a day off, I can blog- and I thought as it's time for a "Bones" post that I'd blog about the things I found this summer that actually connect up to people in the past. Things that you too can look at online, via the Poggio Civitate Excavation Database- we're proud to be fully open access (when the server is working, at least). Twelve artefacts that my team found in my trench made it into the cataloguing system that we use for artefacts that have a meaningful interpretative role to play. Of course, everything we find is recorded and in many cases drawn in our trench books- before being counted and recorded at the close of the book. Don't worry- all the information is safely stored in the magazzino, even to the weight of single pieces of slag.

I'm sorry that I can't tell you more about the features in the trench- I don't want to pre-empt the peer-reviewed publication and presentation. But I thought I'd write up those twelve things, including a link to them all- pulling together what they might mean for the site, as well as how they were recovered.  I often joke around with colleagues about "interpretation at the trowel's edge." This series of posts, I suppose, is exactly that- a biographical account of the discovery of these fascinating yet often mundane objects.

The first of my twelve had the honour of being labelled as PC20130001. It was found when I wasn't even in the trench, as I had gone back to England to have the interview for my new job! Our fab site director Kate stepped in to supervise for me, so this is really a find for her! My trench assistant John "Georgia" Duggan (who will have his own trench next year hopefully as he is a fantastic excavator and a great prospect for the future!) was working on the removal of a large stump, when out popped this particular find, a shining lump of metal. Everyone (I imagine) got excited, as there were little nubs of gilt on this object, which made it look really enticing. Unfortunately, it's not Etruscan. It's probably post-medieval. It's a gorgeous bronze pendant, which would have been covered in gilding, and it's moulded to show the figure of San Domenico on one side, identified by an inscription, and a woman and child (presumably the Virgin) on the other. It's a find that made me sad when I saw it after I got back- and not just because I missed finding it. I imagine a person losing that pendant, and feeling sad and full of regrets- and I know that's just splashing emotions inappropriately all over the past, but that's my honest and instinctive reaction. More seriously, the pendant confirms what we suspected- the area in which the trench was located, Civitate A, was clearly still being traversed by people in the centuries after Poggio Civitate was abandoned- over a thousand years later, someone came through, perhaps a shepherd or traveller, and lost this pendant. 

The next find (PC20130108) is Etruscan, or at least, I assume it was. And unlike the previous find, this one I found myself. I was excavating with my trowel in the eastern end of my trench, working in a locus (the locus system defines the contextual layers of soil in the order that we remove them, which SHOULD be the reverse order in which they were deposited) that was producing relatively large amounts of bone and pottery. I spotted this weird shape with my trowel- a circle, with a dirty cream edge smeared with dark earth. I rubbed the object very gently with my fingers, and pressed in the centre where the mud was- to find that it fell away. A super careful probe with my trowel point, and it was clear that this was a nicely hollowed out piece of worked bone, making a perfect little oval. I pretend that it doesn't matter who finds things, as we're all part of a team- but I was pretty chuffed to have this gorgeous little object turn up. The layer that this piece of worked bone was found in was full of Etruscan material- the area was clearly pretty busy in antiquity! Yet this little fragment proved that larger objects incorporating worked bone were either being made or used in the vicinity. 

The third find is again an industrial one (PC20130112). It looked bloody ugly as it came up- and as we found quite a few examples of these, I can't remember who actually found this one. Sorry! It was probably one of the great students we had on site this year- sharp eyed and sharp brained. One of them probably thought that this was a piece of pottery at first- a heavy, lumpy piece of coarseware.  Then they turned it over, and found a weird covering spread all over the inner face- a little bit shiny where not covered in dirt. The weird covering was actually molten metal- this pot was used in the process of creating iron artefacts- the find was a crucible fragment. So, not only do we have evidence for the presence of worked bone and possibly worked bone production, we also have evidence for metalworking in the vicinity of Civitate A. Someone, somewhere, during the Etruscan inhabitation of the site, was making iron implements.

The final find for this "Bones" post (PC20130136) is a little bit more exciting- and I remember the student who found it (I'm so sorry person who found the crucible fragment!!) as there were not many objects like this found in my trench this summer. Margot, a student from Mount Holyoke College, had quite a lot of excavation experience, and had even worked underwater! It was most likely the green sheen of bronze that first caught her eye- everyone on site knows that the colour hints at something special. Carefully using her trowel to free the delicate object from the soil, she called me over. It was pretty clear at first glance what Margot had found- a fragment of a fibula, or brooch, made of bronze. The coiled end and part of the pin were preserved, but the arch and catch were missing. We didn't find any sign of any other pieces of the fibula this year, even in slightly lower loci. So, I suspect that this object was already broken when it was deposited- thrown away, chucked out. Maybe it was too small to bother melting back down, maybe it broke while being worn and the piece was never recovered by the owner. But an Etruscan person was wearing that fibula at some point in the past, while they were living at Poggio Civitate. At least one person in this area of the site had access to a plain, but still quite classy, decorative pin for their clothes. 

So, there you are- my first four finds. I've linked in the find numbers, so you should be able to click on the "PC" numbers here and see the proper write up by our amazing cataloguer, Theresa. There aren't professional photographs yet- but there will be this time next year. Please enjoy browsing around for what other people found, too. Each find has a little biography, a story like the ones I've described here. The reactions of excavators are always fascinating to me- I would love to find some way of incorporating them into full publications, giving the people who do the digging a voice! How would you feel about seeing that for real? Do you think the internet provides an opportunity to open up archaeological interpretative methodologies? Or is recording instant reactions and assumptions a dangerous business, undermining the wider message published by an excavation director? I'm all for embracing subjectivity- but how far do we go? Let me know if you have any thoughts, or any discovery stories of your own.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Place: in the workplace!

The only way is up!

I have some news. Some flipping, effing awesome news. I came back from Italy on Monday of last week, and headed into my NEW JOB on Wednesday morning.

So yes, I'm employed. And, best of all, it isn't in a supermarket or fast food joint (not that that would be bad- it would probably be fun, but it's not archaeology, unless you're scooping up chicken bones off the floor). A job, a real job, in archaeology. I've done three days of it so far, and it still feels like a dream.

I didn't blog about this before, and I kept it more or less off social media, as I didn't want to jinx things- from the minute I saw the advert, I was desperate for this role. I honestly don't think I've wanted something so much since I was waiting to hear about PhD funding.

So, what's this job? Where did I hear about it? What am I actually doing now?

I'm now working as a researcher and archaeologist-in-residence at the amazing Andante Travels. They are a specialist company who put together archaeological holidays- all over the world! Yes, we (ahem) cover the big name places- Rome, Peru, Turkey, Etruria (!)- but we also cover all sorts of exciting archaeology that's more off the beaten track. Even in three days I have learnt so much- about rockhewn churches in Ethiopia, about incredible sites in Israel, even about the National Archives at Kew. My job is to design and research tours, and seek out the right people to lead them.

I'm still hoping to keep up with the academic world, and will be working on getting my thesis published over the next few months- but in the meantime, if it seems like I've fallen off the edge of the social media/blogging planet, it's because I'm too busy being overexcited about a new destination, or teasing out the best place to fly into to explore the archaeology of the Wild West! I will try not to be too rubbish though- promise!

And please, have a look at our website- it's amazing to be working in such an exciting, ethical and decent company that really cares about helping people enjoy the past, and putting a big fat grin on their faces while they do it. 

PS- If you feel like doing me a MAHOOSIVE favour, I'd be really grateful if you could vote for Andante in the British Travel Awards.We're nominated for three different awards- Best Special Interest Holiday Company; Best Escorted Tour Company and Best Holiday Company for Customer Services. You can win all sorts of prizes for voting- so please, if you have a minute and would like to help out, give us your vote!

PPS- I promise I won't get corporate in future- but Andante work bloody hard to ensure all their customers have a fabulous time, and put a lot of effort into keeping their tours archaeologically relevant, as well as accessible. Thank you so very much.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Pots: Digging Everyday

Summer is i'going out- the excavation season is over, I am about to print out the boarding pass for my flight home. There is still a month (maybe) of sunshine and warmth left, but I will be gleaning it from an English sun, rather than a radiant Italian sole. Ironically, the former has apparently been far more reliable than the latter for everyone in the UK. By contrast, here in Tuscany there have been storms aplenty. The storms haven't kept me from updating this blog- that's my own fault. So, for my first post back, I thought I would blog about what it is to work on an archaeological dig- the pottery side of this oh-so-glam profession. Scruffy and messy, broken and worn- that's the state of me after six weeks of digging, just like any of the scrunched pieces of ceramic mess I've hauled out of the ground. But unlike them, I'm pretty bloody satisfied. We. Found. Stuff. I have to be a tease, until that "stuff" is published. What I can tell you, however, is that it was a damn good season. And this is the story of one day of it.

A usual digging day starts at 6am. That's if, like me, you aren't big on breakfast and can walk quickly. Other people are up far earlier, not least the fabulous cooks we had this year, who have been up for an hour by the time my phone squawks in my ear. Time to get dressed- the scruffification (ahem) process begins. Try not to sniff the clothes as you put them on, unless it's a rare treat of fresh ones. Sports bra first. An old t-shirt, sleeves cut off and collar ravaged by kitchen scissors next. Then the oldest denim shorts I own, that have been coming with me to this place for four years and doing sterling service at home, in other places where nobody can see them who will be horrified by their grottiness. Roll down to the kitchen, fill up my water bottles- 4l on board, and a hunk of bread and Nutella in each hand and I'm out and off down the road.

The walk to site, and the quiet time alone (ish) by my trench that is the reward of doing the walk at top speed, are perhaps my favourite parts of the day. The walk is powered by my iPod, and I try and think of nothing but how the air feels and how long I can make my strides before I feel like a total idiot. The hill looms above me, but once the climb begins I am a part of it. Well, sort of. It tries to throw you off with washed out trails, and brambles lie in wait for the unwary or distracted. To the trenches, yawning open. In the early days of digging the earth looks sullen and brown, full of small stones and roots, with tree stumps sprawling in what should be a neat, flat surface. I think about what I want to do to that earth. I do not think about what I might find- or, to be more honest, I try not to.

Students arrive at 7, and we set to work. The methodology is devastatingly simple- pick, scrape, sort, sieve, dump, repeat. The large pick is abandoned after the first few layers of soil, loci, are removed, and work continues with trowels alone for the latter half of the season. The action of the trowel is deceptive. "Scrape with your whole arm," I prate at the students. "Don't use your wrist." It's a surefire way of catching blisters. Equally important is to use the trowel like your hand- hold it like a pen, it's an extension of you. Don't shove it, point with it. It's often better to use the trowel upside down, twisting and flicking the dirt rather than pushing and flailing at it. This is surprisingly hard to explain over the internet.

The trowel should be the first point at which you spot the past. The hand sort is the second check, the sieve the third. You can always repeat the last two, if you're worried you missed something. A paranoid flash of green- was that bronze, or just a leaf? The first two weeks (and more) of any season resound to the nervous questions "is this a rock?" "is this something?" Always better to ask than to assume negatively. A rock is a rock is a rock- but what if it's polished, worked or flaked? Even a rock has a story to tell. The bulk finds squat in their boxes, which are more confidently filled with each passing day. The special finds (anything not undecorated pottery or unworked bone fragments) have their positions and elevations recorded in the trench book, before being drawn into it.

The trench book is my prrrrecious. The pages are how I will be judged as an excavator- you can see me all over it, you can see how tired my hands are by the end of the day, when the standard of drawing, which is always as high as I can make it, begins to wobble. Each precious layer of soil is recorded, every change and variation. Each move of a pick, each scrape of a trowel- it's all in there.  Features and finds are drawn, stippled to show light and shade and pattern. The rhythm of digging gets broken by these moments of solitary contemplation- how do I accurately and quickly give the impression of that exact stamped decoration? How to draw a squodged up piece of slag? When it's done, I'm back in the trench.

Lunch comes at 12:00. We hide in the shade for a precous half hour, scarfing down bread, crisps and water. The accompaniments vary, but those are constants- carbs, salt and fluid. Peanut butter and jam on Fridays, sometimes. Cold meats, leftovers from dinner, cheese and eggs. Vegetables, fruit. The sandwich combinations make the mind boggle. We don't care- we're hungry and it tastes fantastic. When the food is gone, the mind goes back to the things in the ground, and after a few short minutes the body does too.

The day ends at 3:30. By ten minutes before, I like to be counting up the bulk finds- locus by locus, carefully recording what was found where. Elevations for the end of the day are taken- how far did we go down? This season, not far. In previous years, metres, though not in a day. Finds, bulk and special, all go to the magazzino- store and conservation studio, to be handed over to cataloguer and conservators for their scrutiny. If you've closed a locus, final pottery and bone counts can be done for it. The trench book must be typed up, to be included on the website

That's the end of the excavation day. And guess what, you're bloody knackered.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Stone: The Past is a Foreign Country

Lost in the rainforest. By me.

 I am guessing that you will most of you heard the quote I've used to title this post, the second in my series on theory. It gets thrown around all the time in various forms- "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." It's actually a quote from the novel "The Go-Between" by L.P. Hartley in 1953. This little snippet has survived the 60 years between now and then to become a trope, a cliche, of archaeological thought. If I had a quid for every time this little phrase has popped up (in the first year of undergraduate study alone), I would probably be able to treat myself to some pre-dig pampering. In the rush of repetition, the meaning of this phrase gets lost. It's actually got some quite deep links- back to some serious ideas about who we are, how we think, and how we perceive other people.

Have you ever got lost abroad? I have. Lost in Merida, Mexico. Lost at night in Rome. Lost (for a very panicky minute or so) in the rainforest in Guatemala in a thunderstorm. Do you remember those feelings? The rush of nerves, the separation of yourself from all the people around you, the sense of your own body as an island in the middle of an ocean of strangeness? And all this in a modern world, where so many of the objects and thoughts around us are familiar- the cars, the electric lights, the universal humiliation of the tourist.

Levi-Strauss looking mournful in the jungle. Image: anthrotheory.

One man who took this feeling to the extreme was a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (just for the record, he's not responsible for the overpriced jeans). Levi-Strauss was convinced that, underneath surface differences, human experience was structured by the same principles. He was certain that the same series of contrasts would be picked up by any human brain- separating light from dark, day from night, male from female, cold from hot etc. He termed these sets of differences binary oppositions, and considered that all human societies would have conceptualised them. As a good anthropologist, Levi-Strauss then set off for the field. Dashing to Brazil, he wanted to find people as alien to him as possible, to prove himself right. Accompanied by his wife, Levi-Strauss steadily moved through different cultural groups in the Mato Grosso and Amazon- yet each had been, in his view, tainted by the modern world. The very presence of interpreters, imported clothing, cigarettes- any imported idea or object alerted Levi-Strauss to the fact that these groups were impure- and so could not be used to test his ideas. Finally, heading deep into the Amazon in 1938, Levi-Strauss made contact with the Nambikwara, a community which at last seemed to be relatively untouched by the outside world. Yet he couldn't understand his informants. They couldn't understand him. There was nothing, no common ground, for the two to share. The language, the material culture, the behaviour of the people- Levi-Strauss just could not (in the short weeks he spent there) observe or make use of any of the underlying similarities he was sure were there.

I want to leave Levi-Strauss to one side now- I will come back to his structuralist beliefs another day. My point is that his story demonstrates a real truth in archaeological theory- the same truth that squats underneath the glib little phrase that titles this post. Levi-Strauss could not leave his own body, his own beliefs, his own cultures, his own biases behind. No matter how much he desperately wanted to understand the Nambikwara, how much he cared about their culture, how much he believed that he shared a universal set of cultural building blocks (his binary oppositions) with them- he couldn't talk to them. He couldn't understand them. He could never leave behind his Frenchness, his European identity. His white skin. His penis. He couldn't cast that off and instantly understand what it was and what it meant to be Nambikwara. And nor could I, and nor could you.

As archaeologists, we are continually trying to do what Levi-Strauss did. At least the man actually got to visit, live with, attempt to speak to the people he was studying. The feeling of being lost, of being confused, that everyone experiences in a new situation in a strange culture, might have gone away after a few months- yet continual moments would have brought it back. There's no way of living in the past, to lessen the shock. We are stuck in our own skins- we have our own histories, our own stories and experiences. Everytime I write about the Etruscans, I am doing it as a white, middle-class, English woman. I'm not doing it as an Etruscan. I'm not seeing things an Etruscan might have thought important. And I've had to get over that. Nobody is objective- we are all tied firmly to our own culture. You don't need to get lost in the Amazon to figure that out- Levi-Strauss did it for you. As long as you're honest about who you are, and where you come from, and you use the evidence in a convincing way, your view is just as valid as anyone else's on what happened in the past- because it's a foreign country with no airports and no access where you can't even get lost. You can only do archaeology as you- but that doesn't mean you can't think outside the box you were born into (ouch, horrible cliche). In the next "Stone" blog post, I want to explore this more deeply- the methods we can use to try and wiggle away from our own skins and expand our interpretations of the past.

Let me know what you think of Levi-Strauss and company. Have you been lost abroad? How do you feel about the "foreign country" quote? Please do get in touch with your view!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Bone: Greeks vs Etruscans

Let battle commence! A gorgeous vessel by Nikosthenes from the British Museum

I'm off to Italy next week. I can't wait- heading out into the sun to dig of an early morning is one of the best feelings in the world. Before I go, I will be putting the finishing touches to my PhD- then leaving it to fester for a few weeks so I can proof read it properly. Looking back over my PhD, while it's about pottery- the Etruscan experience of pottery- there's an underlying subtext that weaves through every chapter, ever conclusion. That subtext is, perhaps, the second biggest argument in Etruscan studies. The biggest argument is where the Etruscans came from- a topic for another day. The second debate is over the relationship between Greek traders and colonists sneaking their way into the Tyrhennian from Sicily and southern Italy and Etruscan communities, who had themselves expanded their influence all the way down to Campania. There has been to-ing and fro-ing over this issue for over two hundred years- and to-ing and fro-ing is putting it very lightly. Some of the most acerbic, bitter and downright nasty language that I've ever read in an academic context was written about this problem. In the Greek corner, classical archaeologists and scholars howl for the Etruscans as mindlessly consuming Hellenic culture- their only role was to keep it safe for future generations in their helpfully secure burials. In the Etruscan corner are prehistorians and more classical archaeologists who yell back that the Etruscans were independent traders, strongly competing with a rival who, thanks to their later dominance, had the opportunity to traduce them in print (well, in tablets).  So, as I'm loosely doing a series in my "Stones" posts, I thought I'd do another one with "Bones." Over the sumer, I will trace this argument forward from its origins to the contribution of my thesis to the debate, trying to tease out what lies behind the passionate arguments that still kick off whenever Greek and Etruscan scholars wind each other up, in print or the pub.

So, where did the trouble start?

The origins of this argument date back to the rediscovery of the material culture of the classical world and the 18th century. Prior to this, the Etruscans had variously been adopted as independent ancestors of the Florentine Medici, allowing them to claim a past separate from Rome. Generally, their PR was pretty good- the discovery of the first Attic ceramics at Arezzo in the 14th century resulted in these objects being attributed to Etruscan makers- a feather in the Tuscan cap. Into the 1700s, Etruscomania was sweeping Europe- aristocrats built Etruscan salons, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood developed an Etruscan-inspired range. But by the later 18th century, as knowledge of Hellenic culture was increasing, the Etruscans lost their place in the classical ancestry pantheon, squeezed out by Greece and Rome. It's mostly this man's fault.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, gazing innocently out from those doe eyes from this lovely portrait, opened this can of worms. You wouldn't guess his impact on history from that gentle expression, would you? He looks like a generic 18th century Grand Tourist, a gentleman with aquiline nose and a suitable pretension to scholarship. However, Winckelmann was an amazingly erudite scholar- he more or less invented both art history and classical archaeology. Born in a poor family in 1717, he managed to leave his background behind through devoting himself to study- an example of serious social mobility for the 1730s. Winckelmann's obsession with classical Greece began as a teenager- it intensified in the course of his study for a theology degree at Halle University, and finally found employment which allowed for his passion as a librarian for a rich German aristocrat. From this post, he eventually managed to publish his own work on Greek art, and in 1751 moved to Rome to pursue his studies further. His masterpiee, The History of Art in Antiquity, provides a chronological analysis of art in the ancient world- and it incorporates a study of the Etruscans.

For Winckelmann, Etruscan art was a poor cousin to Greek perfection. He chose to compare Greek art to every other form of art in the ancient world- and, of course, nothing could compare. Greek statues and paintings captured naturalistic forms of human life, they were beautifully composed, they expressed pure emotions reflecting the moral superiority of Hellenic society. On the Etruscans, Winckelmann is pityingly scornful. He compares Etruscan imagery to a young boy who has got in with the wrong crowd- he is violent and uncontrolled. By contrast, Greek art is like a well-brought up young gentleman, modest and knowledgeable, a true citizen of the world. The same tone is applied to a metaphor about rivers- Etruscan art is like a raging torrent, bouncing off rocks, while Greek art is a softly flowing river, gently fertilising a green plain. (Some of us prefer torrents to sluggish muddy-bottomed ooze, but then that's just so much sour grapes from me!)

Winckelmann's opinion was plain- Etruscan art had just got it wrong. The Etruscan representation of the human form was either too extreme (bulging muscles popping out everywhere) or unrealistic (carefully stylised figures with the wrong position of the hands and feet). By the time Greek art starts to arrive in Etruria, it's almost too late- the Greek imagery tries to civilise the Etruscan barbarians, but the fools can only make pathetic imitations- nowhere near the real thing. It's only in the late classical period, when Greek art begins to be copied more effectively, that the Etruscans are worth a damn.

I'm being a bit unfair with my paraphrasing here. Yet I think it's justified (although I wouldn't and haven't written this way in my thesis- but hey, what are blogs for?) What Winckelmann did was set up a series of value judgements about Etruscan art, while simultaneously imposing a methodology which would perpetuate them. So, in his eyes, the only proper way for an art historian/archaeologist to go about their business was to compare objects to other objects and look for signs of development. Remember me writing about social darwinism the other week? This is artistic evolutionism in action- a hundred years before the Origin of Species. If it's beautiful, it's civilised/better. Greeks make "better" art, so their civilisation is more sophisticated. If you only methodology is based on value judgements, created from a very particular set of social sensibilities and conditioning, the Etruscans are going to lose every time. In this way of thinking, it's obvious that the Etruscans would want objects made by Greeks- exotic, beautiful objects that were as alien as they were exciting- because they were just better than those they made themselves. This comparitive methodology doomed the Etruscans to a place as the ancient world's underdogs for at least the next hundred and fifty years.

But some of us love an underdog. And in the next "bones" post, I'm going to chase this argument forward from Winckelmann to the 20th century, and the resurgence of the Etruscans (ahem).*

Ok, so maybe not as "perfect" as an Attic red figure vessel... Etruscan red figure Calyx Crater from the British Museum, showing what happens to people who criticise the Etruscans... well. Not really. I'll just give you an evil in the pub. Although Winckelmann was murdered, age 50, in Trieste... I'm pretty sure there's a horror film in there somewhere....L'Etrusco uccide il studioso..

*I apologise for the deeply partisan nature of this blog post.... when it comes to Etruscan-bashing, I just can't help myself. I have also been known to describe the Etruscans as "us" and Greeks as "them," but only after several free glasses of conference wine make me let my guard down. I hope I'm not alone in this- please do let me know if you are similarly passionate about a particular faction/group in the past- I'm envisioning fans of Sulla, Octavian and others fessing up with abandon. To say nothing of all the British Iron Age people I know who detest those dastardly Romans...... I guess this is why you shouldn't pretend to be objective. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Place: Neolithic Safari

There is a big yellow round thing in the sky. It has been there every day for the past five days. It seems to be radiating heat- when you lie out in it your skin appears to change colour? Has anyone else seen this shining orb? After a long, cold, wet, dank, nasty winter, and a late, grumpy, changeable spring, it feels like summer is finally starting to get going. I can't remember the last time early June was quite so glorious. It's funny, but when the weather is like this- still mornings with the sun rising so early you never quite catch it, a soft mist at the bottom of the valley, all the birds enticing you outside- England feels like the most magical place on earth. The world is full of growing things, even if some of them are nettles.

So, to celebrate the glorious weather, the Cornishman and I went back to the land of his birth. We went to a beautiful wedding on Thursday, which involved some amazing Cornish kilts- and, no, Cornishmen don't wear anything under their kilts any more than Scotsmen do, although my own version was sulking in suit trousers. The weekend was rounded off by the christening of a gorgeous little girlie, and the sun was still very much shining down on all the lovely people at both events. It was funny, as between those two events and the sudden change in the seasons I felt like I was seeing new beginnings all over the place- lots of new babies are coming in the summer and autumn, weddings coming up, people starting new lives together, little ones starting new lives from scratch.

So, naturally, we ran away (literally, as above) to some archaeology, to get back to old lives, people long gone, people who met one another, had babies, grew old and died thousands of years ago. People who are probably entirely unrelated to their descendents doing the same things now, but who still seem to have this powerful hold over us. I'm not an expert on the Neolithic, and I'm definitely not an expert on Cornwall, but as we were already half way there it seemed appropriate to head down to the Land's End peninsula and wander around a stunning landscape. 

I'd never been before. Never been further south than Newquay. So I was surprised by the way the peninsula worked- I knew that the north coast of Cornwall further up is rugged and scraggy, with more moorland than fields. The south coast, on the other hand, is all lazy luxurious bays, rich pasture and chubby cows. Down in the depths, this difference was still there- in the four miles between Penzance and Zennor, two miles in the landscape just switched- from north to south. I have never seen a microclimate quite like it- I can't imagine how strange that must have been for people in the past- to be able to walk between two seas, between two worlds. To go from land that was fertile and easy to farm to barren moors fit only for grazing sheep.

Our first Neolithic site was a stone circle, Merry Maidens. It was completely deserted when we arrived, and we skipped over the stone steps and walked right up to it. Apparently, the site's name in Cornish is "Dans maen," or "Stone dance," which is thought to refer to the legend that the stones were originally a group of dancers who got a bit carried away one Saturday night and didn't stop for the Sabbath. There are two standing stones just off the circle which are supposedly the remains of the musicians who kept on playing ffor them. The two standing stones, "The Pipers" are a bit trickier to get to- one is relatively easy, but the other was hidden behind a gate covered in nettles and brambles, so we just looked at it from the road. I looked them up when I got home, and apparently they are the two largest standing stones in Cornwall- and, more strangely, one of the earliest professional reports on the stone circle was written by Hugh O'Neill Hencken- the same archaeologist who later worked at the Etruscan city of Tarquinia! Even when I hide from the Etruscans in darkest Cornwall they seem to hunt me down!

Just down the road from Merry Maidens is Tregiffian Burial Chamber. Like Merry Maidens, it's a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age monument. Apparently, when excavated in 1871, pits with bone remains were discovered and taken to be evidence for cremations, and later excavations confirmed cremation urns- suggesting the deposition of human remains at the site over a long period of time. The original cross-piece of the monument, covered in cup and ring markings, has been removed and is now in Truro, so the one you can see is a replica. It's a pretty atmospheric little tomb, looking sad and empty beside the lane that runs between Lamorna and Mousehole. Someone had left flowers on the stones, crumpled and dying in the growing heat.

As we were in a bit of a rush, we then went on a Neolithic road trip, following the coastal road from Sennen up to St Ives, with periodical dashes inland to hunt for sites up on the moors. We weren't very successful, as we didn't have an OS Map- only a road atlas with very rough directions. We did manage to find Boskednan stone circle, which has been heavily restored. We then went looking for and failed to find Men-an-Tol, which I had been dying to see, but hadn't properly prepared. By this point, after an afternoon of surfing, we were both pretty tired. I think we will have to come back to Cornwall for a proper prehistory safari- there are some great Iron Age sites there too. In spite of skipping gaily around enjoying the spring, looking back on the weekend it seems to have been a bit of an archaeological flop- and perhaps a bit of a physical flop too! Yep, that's me falling off the surfboard like a spreadeagled whale. Always elegant.