Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Current Affairs



I've spent quite a bit of time of late writing depressing blog posts about the fate of archaeological sites in the wake of conflict. From Syria, where Google Earth lets you track looting and a beautiful mosaic was blown up in the most recent fit of iconoclasm, to the Apollo of Gaza, smuggled in to a deeply troubled region and itself highly suspicious, I've been chasing objects and sites and getting steadily more miserable. I don't know how people like Dr Donna Yates and her colleagues do their valuable work on trafficking antiquities and destruction, but I bloody well admire them for doing it.

I spent a good chunk of the week before last researching the archaeology of the Crimea, in preparation for a potential new Andante tour on the "Empires of the Black Sea." Hours on Google Earth, scanning for burial mounds. Translating fractured GoogleTranslate into actual English to try and read the work of dedicated archaeologists who had mapped as many sites as they could, and shared the locations so the world could find them online. Delving into the depths of the Naval Museum at Balaklava, which looks like the ultimate James Bond villain lair. Even then, everyone at work had one eye on the news, and suspected that the tour might not be a viable idea. Now that the regime of Yanukovych has fallen at last, it seems as though it will be entirely impossible for years to come, while the latent tensions created in the wake of World War II bubble and curdle, leaving violence in their wake. Who knows what will happen to the archaeology itself, or to the people who so diligently created those digital records?

There are high points in all this doom and gloom, individual stories that catch the eye. My favourite is from Mali, a place that I have been fascinated by since childhood as a result of my dad's musical tastes. I had an interview to do a PhD focused on Ethnoarchaeology around Jenne, which I decided against in the end. This turned out to be a good decision, as I would have been smack in the middle of fieldwork when the Arab Spring set loose a vast supply of arms, sending them straight into the hands of the jihadists there. These extremists, after taking over Timbuktu, in addition to inflicting horrible sanctions on the inhabitants, posed a threat to the ancient manuscripts held in the city's venerable library. Through the actions of many brave people, including a band of fishermen and the library staff, the manuscripts were smuggled down the river to safety. The story is told far better here than I could tell it, but it's definitely a glimmer of positivity and hope.

I do wonder though, if it's wrong to care about artefacts- the pots and mosaics, the bits and bobs, the writings and mounds- when people are dying. The fate of the children of Syria is far more important than that of tesserae. That sounds horridly preachy, but it's the voice of guilt in the back of my head. Every time I'm upset about archaeology, that klaxon goes off. People, not pots, are the most important thing. But by that logic, looting and selling archaeological material to survive, to make money, to get on- isn't this just a way to feed families in a terrifying situation? How many looters are really doing it through desperation, and how can the middle-men and marketeers who make vast profits from their labour be brought to account? How can you implement community archaeology projects in the most vulnerable places, helping people and the past in one go, when the risks are so extreme?

There isn't really an answer, and this is a tangled, sad, mess of a blog post, for which I'm sorry. Still, any thoughts or comments very much welcomed.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

#FreeArchaeology and the University

This is a post that takes up a topic that I’ve blogged about before in a different context. #FreeArchaeology was a discussion of internships, work experience and the exploitation of willing (read desperate) junior professionals in search of financially and personally rewarding labour. Today, though, I spotted a new take on the debate, written by the fabolus Doug over at Doug’s Archaeology. With terrifyingly good self-produced statistics on just how productive one could be with access to a good library, and some assessment on time spent on field projects, his conclusions were that University archaeology is at least a variant of #FreeArchaeology- if not worse, as you’re actually paying for the pleasure, or for the bit of paper at the end.

After 8 years in one institution (it wasn’t an HMP, I promise), and heading out of academia with (for now, anyway) no regrets about sliding away into a different industry, I was feeling pretty reflective about the place of universities anyway. I’ve taught a lot of (mostly lovely) undergraduates, I’ve been part of the system, I’ve taught on field schools, I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about Higher Education and its role in archaeology. So I thought I might air them in response to the University #UnfreeArchaeology issue. They’re still pretty tangled, so I beg your patience.

Much of what Doug said I agree with. You can learn at least as much (factually, at least) on your own than you would at University- probably more, because you won’t be distracted by friends wanting you to have fun, taking up dumb new sports and hurting yourself, and carefully stalking and trapping your future life partner. His point about libraries is a particularly important one- the decline of the University of Southampton library is one of the great tragedies I saw unfold over my time there. Real books were shunted to one side, new books were ignored in favour of paying for giant screens, food and drink were allowed everywhere except the reserve collection, and slowly but surely even online journal subscriptions that you’d think were pretty essential (e.g. “Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory”) were dropped. The library steadily became, not a place for learning, but a nursery for people on the edge of adulthood, where the base textbooks lived, some funky specialist examples hung on, but mostly where people went to revise from their own scribbled notes and fanny around on Facebook. So, if you want a library, don’t bother with your average University one. I spent more time just driving to Oxford to use their library than I did in Southampton library.

Fieldwork training, too, was sketchy at best. The university approved field school began with me being assigned a 1x1 square in an open trench and left to get on with it. When I compare that with the careful training and monitoring that the field school I now work on it makes me shudder. You would probably be better off doing an unpaid internship for a year in a commercial archaeology firm than floundering in a world of strange pottery forms of which you knew nothing at the age of 18. It certainly doesn't prepare you for a career in actual archaeology, as several people have pointed out. The same is true of the field schools abroad that I've worked on- they are not the same as consistent, day in day out work in rainy Britain, learning the skills that are relevant to the actual place where you’ll be working.


However, what a good university should give you is the most important facet in being a good archaeologist- the ability to question yourself. The ability to change your opinion in the face of evidence. Seminars, discussion, (enforced) peer-to-peer debate. A good university should give you the chance to find out what you believed about the past was flawed, maybe that what you still believe is flawed- and why you continue to believe it anyway. Not developing single-mindedly, trawling in dogmatic fashion through only the authors you like or agree with, but reading those you don’t, understanding why, respecting their beliefs. Learning to be a reasoning adult, not a troll or a teenager trapped in perpetual sulks. That’s the most valuable thing that came out of University for me. And I don’t think (very sadly) most people can get it for free.