Thursday, 31 January 2013

Place: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala

This is more or less a picture post, a what-this-archaeologist-did-on-her-holidays type of post. As I blogged about previously, I ran away over Christmas to the hot sunny lands of Central America. It all seems a hundred million lightyears away as I sit in my study surrounded by snow, but I did go! It was real! And I had a fantastic time. The exact right balance between archaeology (for me), beach time (for my long suffering other half) and nature (for both of us). And food... the food was incredible. I won't even start on the amounts of tequila based fluid consumed as daily cocktail intake.

The view from my house last week...

I love to travel. I actually think it's pretty important. There's nothing like a good culture shock to make you remember the old chestnut that the past is a foreign country- and probably more foreign than any foreign country you can just hop to on a plane! Watching other people live completely different lives, and knowing that the way they go about their day will keep going, long after you go back to what's "normal" for you, is pretty amazing. The whole world gets on with its respective business, while I sit and write this in cold Devon. seemed a world away from Flores, Guatemala, where I am here...

Palenque, where the world didn't end.

Skulking around looking at the floor....
It's also bloody lovely to get away archaeologically. We honeymooned in Greece, so I knew a whole load about all the sites we were seeing. The result of this was I got cross with incorrect signs, and stomped around museums gloating over the amounts of bucchero and Etruscan made material while my husband sighed and took pictures. Mayan archaeology is something I know very little about- so I just lapped up the sites, didn't fuss over the signs, and only had one Hermione-Granger moment when the guide started talking about the Pope's crozier as a sign of spiritual dominion (there's a long history to the blimmin' thing, which seems to have started life as an ETRUSCAN lituus or magistrate's staff. Eurgh).

It was particularly special to be visiting in time for the supposed "Mayan apocalypse" of 2012. Needless to say, it didn't happen. What did happen was a lot of hippies showed up at the site of Palenque, where we were staying, tried to stay up chanting and taking ayahuasca all night, got drenched by a vicious thunderstorm which showed what the gods thought of them, and then were looking utterly miserable with bloody noses and soaking wet maxidresses the next day. I sniggered unkindly, but seeing the dedication these people had did make me realise the power of these ancient places for them- who was I to laugh? I felt pretty guilty about laughing the night before at the figures running through the pouring rain falling over in wet robes due to the amount of mind altering substances they'd consumed. It was funny though, honest.

Phil looking sick at Bonampak!

The amazing murals at Bonampak- weirdly reminding me of Etruscan tomb paintings in brighter colours...
My favourite site was (predictably) the quietest and least visited we went to. It's called Yaxchilan, and to get there you have to travel in a little boat an hour down a river. There were spider and howler monkeys, living in almost intact jungle, and the best archaeology was 300m up and well worth the climb. I also loved seeing the murals from Bonampak, although my husband was feeling very ill that day and did not appreciate being dragged up the steps to see them. He does say it was worth it now though.

A very excited me on the boat to Yaxchilan!

The final site of our tour was Tikal, which we visited in the dark in time for sunrise. I can't really describe the experience more than to say (banally) that it was truly magical. As we visited very close to the solstice, the sun rose directly over one of the temples to strike us viewers in the face. We also got some fabulous photos of the wildlife...

Sunrise at Tikal

Spider monkey at Tikal- this incredible photo, like all the pictures from this post in which he doesn't feature, was taken by my husband Phil- thank you :)
So, that was my trip- worth not blogging for a few weeks eh??

In all seriousness- I think going away was one of the best things I could have done. In fact, I'm plotting a humungous getaway for when I finish my PhD. Dependent on when and what happens afterwards, I'd really like to have another fantastic, culture shock escape. Maybe a little more wildlife/seaside than this time though- it's only fair on hubby. I'm thinking Nepal and India? We'll see.

I hope you liked the photos, and I would say to anyone considering going to Central America- do it. Go tomorrow and book the flights.

Where are you travelling to next? Where was the best place you've been? How has travel changed you? As an archaeologist/academic or as a person?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Bone: Dead Babies and Poggio Civitate

In the summer of 2010, osteoarchaeologist Sarah Kansa was making a detailed examination of hundreds of bags of mixed animal bone, the result of many years of excavation at Poggio Civitate. This site, excavated since 1966, is one of the most significant non-funerary sites in Etruscan archaeology, most famous for the stunning architectural terracottas used to decorate its central complex. It sounds like the start of a novel, or an action/ horror film, as while Sarah was working through the bone remains, she made a discovery- a tiny fragment of human bone which would become the centre of what, to an Etruscan archaeologist, has become a media storm. In typical fashion, I had left Poggio Civitate 2 days before Sarah made her discovery- heading home from excavation a week early to get married. When I returned last summer, one of the first things I did on my first lab day was nonchalantly wander over to Sarah's workspace to look at the group of tiny bones, which Sarah had identified as those of an infant or infants. Their fragility invoked in me a completely unprofessional ethnocentric response connected to human tragedies in the present for me- the loss of a child and the emotions involved. At the time that I first saw the remains, my cousin (and friend) was 8 months pregnant- imagining her and her partner's response, and that of our family, to that precious life ending soon after birth was horrific and disturbing.* 

View of Poggio Civitate looking beautiful on a summer's day. 

The same reaction which I instinctively felt on seeing the remains is what lies at the heart of what happened when the site director, Dr Anthony Tuck presented the discovery at the American Institute of Archaeology Annual Meeting a week and a half ago. The context of the find, excavated from the Orientalising period workshop building (more information about the workshop in this article by Tuck and Nielson, published in 2001, here ), alongside animal bones and debris, led Tuck to suggest that, possibly, this infant was disposed of without a formalised burial. He went on to raise questions about the status of infants in Etruria, asking whether it could have been possible for stillborn or neonatal infants to be regarded as non-persons at this period. ** The potential for mass exploitation of the emotional reactions I experienced when seeing the remains was picked up by media sources, recognising the potential for a good story- originally by NBC Science , then by Live Science and then by the Daily Mail. The latter's coverage was particularly rotten, even by their standards- describing the site as Roman rather than Etruscan and filled with sensationalist overexcitement and righteous outrage at the barbarism of the past, both features which, while present in the previous articles, were at least slightly understated. ***

 The central problem with the coverage, as astutely pointed out by Dr Kristina Killgrove, was the cultural Darwinism inherent in these posts- we in the present treat our infants well, so we can be nicely horrified by past cultures, and vilify and judge their decisions and choices. Yet, at the same time as the Poggio Civitate infant remains were being used as a bolster to our present superiority, a story was breaking in the UK that demonstrated the continuity of practice in the disposal of infant remains as non-persons. This story from Scotland outlined the facts that a crematorium in Edinburgh had been routinely misleading parents about the cremated remains of their children. The Mortonhall Crematorium told parents that no remains would be extant after cremation for them to scatter, as infants are too small to produce ashes for secondary burial. What happened was that ashes were produced, and then buried together in a mass grave over a period of 45 years. Although the placement of the grave was in a "Garden of Rememberance," the remains of neonates were treated distinctly differently from those of adults, and denied individual identity in death. The Mortonhall scandal is not alone: this article by Lynn Morgan outlines another issue of infant status in the modern world- the disposal of foetal remains as medical waste and curation as biological specimens, while there have been two cases of babies found in association with rubbish this year- one still alive after a 50ft fall down a rubbish chute and one found dead at a rubbish dump in Scunthorpe. Whether by distressed and unprepared parents or uncaring authorities, infants are still being treated in a different fashion to adult human remains in the modern world- and this is just in the UK alone! While it is great to see a site you work at in the international news, it would be even better if that news coverage was tempered by sensitivity to the otherness of the past and honesty about practices in the present.

* Her baby was born on 11/08/12 and has been from the start a very happy and healthy little boy. Look! Isn't he gorgeous? By the way, I'm not saying that the mother (s) of the Poggio Civitate infant (or infants) didn't grieve over their babies- but I doubt they felt exactly the same way a modern mother would.

** I don't want to get into the interpretative debate about the context of the bones in detail- it would take this post away from a point about present-centrism, and I'm neither an osteologist nor a forensic taphonomist. Tuck's original presentation presented one hypothesis of disposal alongside rubbish, while Killgrove's response (see link above) suggested a secondary disturbance as responsible for the presence of the infant remains in the workshop. I am tempted to think there is room for a third point of view- looking not, as Killgrove did, to the later Roman world, but north to the European Iron Age. JD Hill's "Ritual and rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex" presents a different way of thinking about deposition- recognising the incorporation of ritual into the disposal of animal remains, seeming rubbish, and humans. A recent article by Adrian Chadwick further develops the nuances of this argument. If the lines between ritual deposition and chucking away rubbish are recognised as blurred and complex, the infant remains from Poggio Civitate can be seen in a different light. The systematic destruction of Poggio Civitate's Archaic complex certainly points to a hyprid form of deposition at a later point in the site's history.

*** There is a debate here to be had about public, open access archaeology and sensationalisation, but that is another can of worms altogether- and one that, in the wake of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, is also getting a lot of attention at the moment. Suffice to say, the public deserve better than incorrect, sloppy archaeological journalism as exemplified by the Mail. I know plenty of archaeologists who would be more than happy to provide such assistance as needed! 

References (in addition to articles linked to above)

Chadwick, A. M. (2012), Routine Magic, Mundane Ritual. Towards a Unified Notion of Depositional Practice. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31: 283–315. 

Hill, J. D. (1995). Ritual and rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex. A study on the formation of a specific archaeological record. Tempus, Oxford.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Pots: Time Off and 2013

I cannot believe it has been almost a month since I last wrote on this blog. I would love to say that it's been a manically busy period, I've got loads accomplished, finished my PhD and got a million journal articles accepted but that would be a big fat lie. In fact, I have been away. I brought articles and a work book with me, but I didn't read them. I lay on the beach, and visited some amazing archaeological sites in lands far far away. They pushed me right out of my comfort zone- I knew nothing about them, and very little about the people who made them. I just gawped along with all the other folks standing looking at them.

The reason that this is a Pots post is that I am starting to think that time off should be an everday thing. BECAUSE the gawping and sunning time that I have just spent has been one of the most productive times in my life. I was getting pretty tired and run down by the end of last academic term- with no holiday apart from 3 days off in March since my honeymoon, which itself ended up very stressful, I had no idea how much I needed a break. I turned off my twitchy Twitter spidey senses, stopped looking at emails, and just absorbed the world for 3 weeks. It was blissful. By the end of the first week, problems that I had been worrying over constantly were suddenly small and solvable- I can just ask this person for help, I can just apply for that. By the end of the second, I had a massive breakthrough with my PhD thesis- I suddenly realised exactly what I wanted to conclude, and what I had learnt. Just before I went away, my wonderful supervisor told me that I was "banging on the door" of having my work completely sussed. All it took were 2 weeks away to burst through the door and come out the other side elated.

So, I am thinking that time off, time away, is perhaps one of the most important aspects of academic practice. Before my dog died, I was very good at this- I had to make space for 2 hours each day to walk, with no gizmos or phone or anything, just me, him and our feet moving and thoughts flowing. All the positive breakthroughs of my time away have shown me that this is something my brain is missing. So, I am going to try and take time more regularly to just switch off- stop tussling and worrying over tiny issues, making them bigger instead of smaller. It's like my mind just needs a bit of time to process, before it can come up with an answer- unconscious thought whirring away in the background. I didn't realise how important this space and time would be, until I wasn't letting myself have it anymore. Everyday time to reflect, time to empty my mind and refresh myself. I think this can only make my work better, and certainly my work-life balance better. So that's my New Year lesson, I suppose. 2012 was a year that started with heartbreak and ended with burnout. I'm not going to do that in 2013. I'm going to do things aside from work that I love- running, yoga, and volunteering. I've just volunteered to work in two different museums, which, now that I'm not teaching any more, I have time for. Hopefully they will stop me getting bogged down again, and provide a little more regular respite from the Etruscans in my head! (Caveat: I don't think there are actual Etruscans in my head. They are definitely metaphorical, just so you know I'm not crazy).

What are your plans for 2013? What do you do to take time off? Is it an important part of your academic life? Do you have past people in your head?

PS- a sneak peek from my trip away to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. I will blog about this in more detail another day... but you can see why I was glazed over with amazement... maybe mindblowing archaeology should be a prescription experience?