Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Pots: Last Year Presentation

Last week, I performed one of the rituals of a University of Southampton archaeology student for the last time- as it's an everyday kind of ritual, I've decided to whack it in as a "Pots" post. At the end of each academic year, all doctoral students are required to present their work to the research community at large- which usually means a mixture of keen MA students dreaming of doing this very thing next year, staff being supportive (and hiding from their exam marking for a sweet hour), and of course other PhD students, anxiously waiting to bring their research out to play. In the first year of PhD study presenting at this conference is dressed up as your "First Year Presentation" and is made to look quite scary- cue a huddle of nervous first year PhDs worrying that all they can present is a plan and a literature review because that's as far as they've got. If you're reading this, first year presenters, let me tell you now that that is just fine- nobody is expecting you to have done any more- it's just about being able to stand up, face the room and set out your stall. At the other end of the scale, you have the old farts like me- been around the department for so long (8 years of my life, from 18 to 26) that the staff are already rolling eyes at each other when you meander up to the podium.

Now, I love presentations. I suspect this is mostly because, deep down, I love an opportunity to show off a little bit. However, this wasn't always true- in my undergraduate degree I hated presenting. It made me nervous, slightly sick to the stomach. I made all the classic cockups- too much text on slides, talking too fast, not making eye contact with anyone, like a very guilty puppy who's left a present under the dining room table. So I thought I'd blog a bit about presenting- what I've learned over the four years of PhD about what makes a good presentation. Normally I don't try to be an "academic skills" type of blogger, but hey- I may well have something to add to this problem, in amongst all the bittersweet nostalgia of winding down to finishing my doctorate. No point being soppy if you aren't going to be useful. So, here are my top tips for a good presentation (that you might not have heard before):

1) Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. This is my secret. Of course your research is super important to you. Of course you don't want anyone to think you're a chump up there. If you are presenting to a superstar audience who really know their stuff, it can be intimidating. If you are presenting to any audience at all, it can be nervewracking. You need to nip this in the bud, fast- or you will give in to the temptation to drain all personality out of your presentation, playing it so safe you might as well be wearing a lifejacket and blowing a whistle. If you drone on until the allotted time is done, not smiling, not looking up, grim and relentless in your dissemination of knowledge, all your audience will take away from your presentation is how bored they were. Look around the room- the death grip on your notes won't save you if you haven't done the work. You're here- all these people are interested in you- because you're bloody interesting. Now show it. Give the crowd what they want- fantastic archaeology (or whatever) presented with a smile. If you stuff up, who cares? Everyone's been there. Better to be engaging and accidentally skip two slides on than bore the pants off everyone and stick relentlessly to the plan.

2) Write as you speak. While this is probably true for most short forms of academic work, it is vital in a presentation. I know fantastic speakers who can do a 15-20 minute paper without a script. Good for them. For me, scriptless presenting is for 30 minutes plus- anything less and I need a plan to get everything I want to say out there in the time limit. When writing up a presentation paper, I think of around 150 words per minute I'm speaking. So, for 20 minutes that works out at about 3000 words. Every one of those words should be phrased and styled as if the script does not exist at all. Sentence construction is key here- when I'm writing I can get bogged down in sub-clauses- when I'm speaking that does not happen. The little one-liners I like to throw in in conferences are written in my script, as are the more serious moments when the tone changes. It's all there- like a play, you should be able to write your audience's general reaction. Of course, an academic presentation can't all be fun and games, but it should feel natural, warm and enthusiastic- exactly how you sound when yackking about your research to your colleagues, friends and long suffering partner. Note- this ruthless word-planning should also stop you committing the cardinal sin of presentations- going over your allotted time.

3) Posh slide presentations are all very well, but it's what you say that counts. I have seen some beautiful slide shows in my time- gorgeously put together treats of powerpoint, swirling and whirling around the screen as they zoom in and out of view. These presentations (even if they don't make you feel sick from all the movement- honestly, it's like being in one of those flight simulators sometimes), no matter how lovely they are, are less important than the words the presenter is speaking. They can even be distracting. If everyone is absorbed in watching your text spring onto the slide in a super flashy font, they aren't listening to you divulge your wonderfully original re-interpretation of Levi Strauss/Maiden Castle/Garibaldi's March on Rome.

4) Enshrined in the previous three hints- keep it simple. Don't try and do too much. A little bit of text, mostly pictures in terms of your slide show. Personality and warmth, minimal jargon in your spoken paper. The images, especially charts of results, do a lot of the work for you- all you have to do is bring them to life. These rules apply whoever your audience are- bigwigs, fellow students, the raggle taggle of the research community. They'll be eating out of your hand if your research is good and you can present it simply and clearly, like a human being, not a robot.

I hope these rough and ready tips are of some use to somebody- do you have any other thoughts on what makes a good presentation? Has anyone got any horror stories to tell? I realise that I don't deal too much with nerves here- basically, I think they can be useful as long as they are under control. The only way (in my book) to get nerves under control is to practice, and have faith in the four previous principles to carry you through. Does anyone have any more constructive advice? I'm off to work, incorporating my advisor's comments into my PhD draft. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Stone: Social Darwinism

As promised yesterday, here is the first chunk of archaeological theory, social darwinism. Why do you need to know about social darwinism? Because it lies behind some very nasty ideology which was used to promote some hideous political actions which badly damaged thousands of people. Heard of the Stolen Generations? Seen Rabbit Proof Fence? Then you've come into contact with the impact of this idea.

The clue is in the name with social darwinism. The central tenet is the application of Charles Darwin's ideas about natural selection to human societies. Darwin himself was far too busy molesting bumblebees and fearing for his mortal soul to develop and apply his ideas in a human context- it's slightly unfair that his name has been so firmly attached to this repellent theory. However, his key realisation: that animal species develop through evolution, changing in order to survive, came in the midst of a period of global upheaval caused by colonialism. European powers were tightening their grip on lands, resources and people they had acquired by conquest. Darwin's ideology, applied to humans, provided a neat ideological explanation for their success, and a reason to continue oppressing and mistreating colonial subjects. If some human societies are continually becoming more successful and developed (and the definition of that success and development is a 19th century European one), then others are left behind- and are doomed to go extinct. If you can't evolve, can't keep up- then it is not the problem of the people forcing you off your land, manipulating you into indentured labour, sexually abusing you. Nope- it's your problem. You didn't evolve into a developed enough society- so you're doomed to extinction. Sorry about that. Social darwinism provided a perfect, scientific excuse for colonial genocide.

My favourite case study for understanding how warped and weird social darwinism is as an idea is one that's very close to home. The relationship between Britain and Ireland has always been a fraught one- from Strongbow (the Norman, not the cider) through Cromwell to Thatcher and the IRA. During the 19th century, Ireland was a British colony, and Irish people were some of the first victims of social darwinism in action. Irish people were portrayed in cartoons as stupid, ape-like louts. Their facial features were catalogued in phrenology textbooks as those of criminals. The Irish were compared to African slaves, as in this cartoon by Opper, which is titled "A King of Shanty," referencing the African "Ashanti." You can see how the Irish family are given flat, ape-like noses, prognathic snouts and hulking brow ridges, similar to contemporary racist caricatures of Africans and African-Americans. The man wears a pot for his hat, and sits on his arse smoking while his shoddily built house falls down around him. The empty bottle in the corner speaks volumes.

So far, so unpleasant. Yet the deliberate portrayal of the Irish as stupid sub-humans doomed to extinction was closely allied to the devastation of the Irish population in the Great Hunger of the 1840s and early 1850s, and the continuing poverty and hunger which ravaged the population in the following years. Between 750,000 and one million people died in the Famine, and it's estimated that two million emigrated. In the light of later social darwinist ideas, this unimaginable suffering was a natural outcome of the racial inferiority of the Irish people- there was no need for soul-searching or guilt, still less compensation and assistance for the survivors. The Irish had failed to evolve a survival strategy for the modern world- it was only right that they face the consequences of their idiocy.

It's a chilling example, and you can see already where social darwinism could and did lead- through a gate with Arbeit Macht Frei emblazoned on it. Racism and colonial economic interests backed up by science. The effects were long lasting, too- when my grandparents came to England from Ireland they were still faced with "No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish" signs in boarding houses. The shadow of the stupid Paddy can still be found in Irishman, Englishman, Scotsman jokes. But how does this relate to archaeology? Isn't this just colonial history?

The answer is a big, fat, NO. Firstly, archaeology was becoming professionalised at the same time as social darwinist ideas were popular: huge great tracts of early work are coloured by this theory. If you want to understand approaches to prehistory in particular during this period, you need to know how social evolutionism works as an idea. Richard Miles, in the last of his excellent series, covered this in a discussion of the interaction between social darwinism and nationalism in archaeology through the dual case studies of Piltdown man and Nazi archaeology. You can find it here.

Secondly, Social darwinism is hiding behind archaeological interpretation all the time- particularly in popular media. Remember a few months ago I wrote a post about the infant remains at Poggio Civitate and the way they were covered. The assumption behind the pontificating in the Mail (amongst other offending media sources) was that the modern world is far more civilised, far better, far nicer than that of the past, and that we are currently the pinnacle of social evolution. The discarding of an infant body in such a way, nay, the very practice of infanticide, would not happen in our evolved world! Except it did. Horrifically, as in the Kermit Gosnell case. In another recent news story, there was some shock about the discovery of evidence for cannibalism amongst early European settlers in the New World. The scandal came from the provision of concrete evidence that the social evolutionary assumption that cannibalism is for savage, undeveloped headhunters, not recognisable early modern salt-of-the-earth pilgrims was proven to be false. The same racist assumptions of social evolutionary thought lie behind all the conspiracy theories about Mayan or Egyptian pyramids being built by aliens- because obviously (native) ancient people weren't developed enough to create such complex structures. Every time someone makes an argument about the past which relies on assumptions about inherent, continuous and universal standards of development, particularly when that development is based on morality, they are using the theory of social darwinism. I really hope, if you've read your way through this post, that you'll call them on it.

The Jamestown Cannibalised Skull- Photo credit Fox News
 It feels a bit disingenous to start a series on archaeological theory on a theory I'd hope you won't go on and use. But it's a chilling example of how strong and how long-lived an idea can be. Let me know your thoughts on this post, and I hope you won't just skip the next post in the theory season- I'll be talking about ethnocentrism and Levi-Strauss.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Stone: Let's talk about Theory, baby

First off, apologies for not blogging for the last couple of weeks- I've been working pretty hard to finish the second draft of my PhD thesis. It's done now, sent off to my supervisor and advisor for their thoughts, and hopefully will soon be transformed into the final version. Phew! So I'm back blogging, and, looking at the loose cycle of Pots-Places-Stones-Bones, I realised that this post needed to be a Stone post. In the past, I seem to have used these posts for a bit of a whinge, a bit of a gripe. Sometimes (I hope mostly) those moans are constructive and about relevant topics that need to be questioned. However, I want to do something a bit more productive with these posts over the next couple of months.

You may not think that talking about archaeological theory is productive. When I was an undergraduate, there was a strong feeling that theory was "dead" and was a surplus requirement to the practical business of digging things up. I'm not sure if the proponents of this idea (who were many, and who were vocal), were responding to an internalisation of theory, or were just being mischievous. Either way, when a member of academic staff starts your "Introduction to Archaeological Theory" module with a soothing (read patronising) little monologue on how "theory is tough" and "it's ok not to understand," the chance to change those people's views went down the toilet.

So here's what I think. Theory isn't tough. Sometimes the language that the people writing it use is tough, obscure, downright daft. But theory is about ideas, and the ideas are usually devastating- because they are, at their heart, relatively simple. When I taught an undergraduate module with a good friend on "Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology," because we were theorists, we filled the course with it. Students lapped it up- we got stellar feedback ratings. Because you don't teach theory by whinging on about how tough it is- you make the IDEA clear, you find a fabulous pair of case studies that illustrate the point (usually one ethnographic and one archaeological for our purposes) and then you make the students apply the theory, go back to the original work and demolish the crap presentation to get at the central concept.

Because (and drum roll here please) you are applying theory all the time. ALL THE TIME. Theory is alive and well, because you are using it. You can't wipe your head clean, you can't empty out your mind. This is what Ian Hodder was talking about all those years ago about "theory at the trowel's edge," a phrase that's often smirked at. Every time you pick up a trowel, every time you read a source, every time you trawl through a museum store, you are doing something pretty special. You are simultaneously combining preconceived opinions and physical evidence to make a new idea. You can't turn off that process- that's what we're in it for. Even if you're watching archaeology on telly, you are still doing this. You are theorising- having and making ideas about material culture. That's archaeological theory.

So, if you are going to do this all the time, it seems like a pretty good idea to organise those ideas. To find out who thought of them first, and how their thoughts differed to yours. To discover the flaws in your own arguments and be able to make them (harder) better (faster, stronger). To find new ideas that are exciting, that transform your thoughts about objects, words or people. That's what learning archaeological theory is for, and, taught correctly in fully contextual and applied manner, it's f***ing brilliant.

So, over the next lot of Stone posts, instead of faux-positive whining about how I can't get a job*, I want to talk about the big ideas in theory. The thinkers, the case studies, that have changed how I approach objects in my professional life, and most of my actual life. Once you're familiar with these arguments, which aren't just about archaeology but about people, you see them everywhere- you can bust them if they're rubbish, or use them if they work for you. BUT YOU HAVE TO KNOW THEM FIRST! To make up for my absence, there will be two posts this week- probably tomorrow I'll be back, and I want to start (almost) at the beginning of archaeological theory.

See you tomorrow for some cultural Darwinism.

Don't look so worried Charles! It's just some ideas!

*Although you never know- as a colleague and I discussed on Twitter, I think a BBC4 series on theory in anthropology/archaeology could actually be pretty damn good: thinkers, ideas and case studies every week. Like the recent Richard Miles doc on the history of archaeology, which was well presented and fun and accurate- the Holy Grail. If you're reading this, O Hallowed Producers, give me a shout.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Bones: Queens, Journalists and Shrieking

Image (c) Wessex Archaeology

There have been a couple of super exciting discoveries in British archaeology recently. One of the absolute best things about Twitter is that I find out about these a lot faster through my network of wonderful archaeology tweeps. One of the most annoying things about this is that I will be cheekily scrolling through my tweets, come across a link, read the article and give out a strangled shriek of rage. Well, irritation, but it still makes my other half look at me like I'm raving mad. You'd think he'd have realised by now. Why would I have such a silly reaction to these wonderful pieces of news? This week I want to talk about an otherwise great discovery that provoked that yowling groan, and why it made me make stupid noises and jump around ranting.

The first one was the discovery of a female burial at Windsor, and included in her grave were some wonderfully rich artefacts. Gold jewellery, a distinctive pot known as a beaker, amber buttons, lignite beads- you name it, this lady was rocking it. The archaeologists themselves were cagey at first- Wessex Archaeology described the Kingsmead Quarry burial as that of an "important woman." Gareth Chaffey, who directed the excavation, tried desperately to encourage reporters to think of the woman in context with her community- to think about the life she led, her potential importance in trade, suggesting she could have been a leader. You can read his remarks on the Wessex Archaeology Blog, and they were pretty damn sensible. Yet mainstream media, Discovery News, the Daily Mail (no, surprise me), and NBC news all went for the royal connection. "Windsor's Earliest Queen!" "The First Queen of Windsor." Cue the NEAAAAAAARRRGH.

There are two massive problems with describing the Kingsmead burial as royal. The first one is an issue of terminology. Queen, princess- these are terms that we have manufactured and specified over centuries of very distinctive monarchy. Queens and princesses belong in interpretations of medieval royal palaces, dynastic marriage and arguments over Tudor succession. They do not belong in prehistory. We have absolutely no way of knowing whether someone living in the Windsor area in around 2500 BCE would have had a conception of a queen. My money says that they wouldn't. It's a completely inappropriate act of ethnocentrism to smear such culturally laden language all over the past. This leads me to the second problem. The terming of a burial as royal suggests that the value this woman had to her community was closely connected to her family, to her lineage. Terming her a Queen makes her body the source of her power- the mother of an heir, the daughter of a King. It removes all sense of this woman as having earned her beautiful grave goods through hard graft, through her position in the community, through her knowledge and wisdom, through her trading nous. To call this woman a queen reduces her to a womb or a chattel, an object revered as the channel for male power. A pretty plaything, revelling in her amber buttons as much as a modern princess might in her designer shoes. Yes, queens can wield power for themselves- Victoria, Elizabeth. Yes, royal women are intelligent, canny and strong. But they do not get hold of power due to their skills. They inherit it from a man, and their primary role is to produce an heir. And it seems like the only way that mainstream archaeological media can conceive of a powerful female figure in the past is to squash her into a royal box. I know the Windsor connection must have been a powerful temptation in this case- but it's symptomatic of a far wider problem. Inappropriate terminology, sexist interpretation, all being peddled to an interested public who lap up the byline and bling, as the journalist gets away with repeating the same tired narratives which press the past into terms so specific to the present as to obscure all its delicious complexity. Apart from being supremely irritating, it's bloody boring.*

I don't know how the Kingsmead woman got hold of her gorgeous grave goods. I don't know who decided she needed them in death. Maybe she did inherit hereditary power. Maybe she was married to a rich, male leader who covered her in goodies. The feminista interpretation of her as powerful in her own right may be as wrong as the sexist idea of her as a queen. My point is that popular science journalism should be exposing this juxtaposition, talking about it, making it clear to the public that archaeological interpretation isn't about splashing modern terms and assumptions on the past. That's why archaeology is so exciting. The world of "Windsor's Earliest Queen" was unimaginably different from our own- you got a flavour of that in the excellent Wessex blog by Karen Nichols. Why is it so impossible for mainstream media to get that message across?

What do you think? Did the Kingsmead coverage drive you nuts? Do you think that the Wessex blog should have been used in the mainstream press rather than just manipulated for the interpretation that journalists wanted? Please let me know.

* In an aside, this isn't just a problem for the media. In my own work, I come up regularly against "Tombe Principesche" or "Princely tombs." It seems like the royal metaphor is still, in spite of critique, clinging on in all its biased glory.