Anarchy and Ammonites

Almost everything interesting in Bristol was closed when we got there yesterday–the markets, the anarchist collectives, the galleries. Still, I wanted to see more of the city than the university campus and the small neighborhood where I was holed up during the snow & sickness. In particular I wanted to check out Stokes Croft, informatively dubbed “The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.” Sound familiar?

The neighborhood graffiti and murals were interesting–one of the first well-known Banksy murals is over the main street and the nearby squats are completely covered in art. I also wanted to see Turbo Island, a small area in Stokes Croft that was excavated to investigate heritage and contemporary homelessness–an interesting experiment in contemporary archaeology. From John Schofield’s email announcement of excavations on Turbo Island:

As some of you will know, the project that Rachael Kiddey and I have been doing with homeless and vulnerably housed people in Bristol is taking a new turn. During our perambulations last summer (and ongoing) we regularly returned (physically and in conversations) to Turbo Island, where Stokes Croft meets Jamaica Street – people kept telling us (hi)stories about the site, how it was a ‘speakers corner’, and how they used to hang pirates there. So we thought it would be fun and interesting to involve them in a small excavation of this place where they spend so much time – to perhaps uncover some of the stories of Turbo Island.

There wasn’t a lot left to see besides a few Tiki heads and the Stokes Croft museum was closed. Another time, I suppose.

After Bristol we ran off to East Quantoxhead, a tiny town on the north coast of Somerset that is famed for the huge ammonites that are eroding out of the beach head. The town is built out of the local rock, so there are fossils in all of the walls and houses. We looked around a bit, but had to hurry–the sun was setting and we wanted to get to the beach before it was dark!

The short walk follows a small stream through lovely green fields and out to the beach. I swear I want to spend a summer just walking through England, eating pub food and taking photos. It was foggy and gray, so the trail looked like it disappeared into nothing, like we were on the edge of the earth, instead of looking out over Wales.

The beach itself looks like it was intentionally cobbled with smoothed limestone and alternates with dark and lighter sediment. The light was almost gone, so we only saw a couple of small ammonites–not the huge ones that we were hoping to find. I think the area has also been heavily quarried by fossil hunters–it’s too bad, really.

So we headed back through the fog, down sunken, hedge-lined lanes and over to Exeter to meet with a few friends. It’s cold here, but I’m not sure I’m ready to leave for Qatar in a couple of days!

Wandering Around Exmoor

I’ve spent most of the last week in Dulverton, near the border of Devon and Somerset in western England. As I mentioned in the last post I’ve been ill, and just now coming out of it, so I haven’t been able to wander as I would have liked. It’s also been pretty cold and snowy, which I have been assured is absolutely peculiar for this time of year. Luckily, the frost has started to thaw, and everything is still ridiculously green beneath all the snow.

Not my photo, sadly. Still, Exmoor ponies!!

One of the absolute necessities of the trip was to see an Exmoor pony. They’re a herd of semi-domesticated and vaguely prehistoric-looking shaggy ponies that live up on the moors. We managed to track a few down, nibbling on the greenery underneath the snow.

The moors themselves are pretty fascinating–they’re a high plain with poor soils, so there isn’t much up there besides heather and a few roads. I’d love to come back over the summer to wander around and find a few of the hillforts and other ruins around.

We came down out of the moors to the north coast to check out Linton and Linmouth, Porlock, Minehead, and Dunster. Dunster is an adorable little medieval town that has a nice, newish castle and a tower-folly on the Bristol channel. People were out and about even though it was a bank holiday, and some of the shops were actually open. We refrained from going into any pubs though–the day before we had a trial run at a local pub and I had an Exmoor Beast, a fairly terrible high-alcohol holiday ale and I just wasn’t up for another drink yet. Still, Dunster was nice, if a bit twee. There’s a cute dovecote, a water wheel that still grinds flower and a church with a 500-year-old rood that survived the reformation. And a pet cemetery!

The fog was thick up on the moor and in the valleys, but broke around the coast and I got a few rays of sunshine–not that you can tell from the photographs.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice 2010

I should update about TAG Bristol at some point, but I caught a horrible chest cold and have been pretty much bed ridden since Sunday. Except…!

Damn the illness–we decided at the last minute to go to Stonehenge for the winter solstice. Sadly, English Heritage has closed off the rocks to tourists, limiting access for most people most of the time. But twice a year they open up the stones for druids to worship during the solstices.

While I’m not particularly religious (or a druid!) I wasn’t really interested in seeing Stonehenge unless I could lay hands on the thing, so it was perfect timing for me.

We woke up at 5, and got on the road from Bristol by 6, and were at the monument by 7:30. At first I had heard that there wasn’t going to be parking available, so we had pulled up to park on the highway, but were waved off by the police. They let us park in the parking lot anyway, and were actually pretty pleasant, for being up on a very cold and snowy morning in England, right before Christmas!

We walked up to the stones and it seemed that there were mostly onlookers there, not as many druids. People kept telling me that “travellers” were going to be there, and as I have no idea who these people are, I was interested to see them. They just looked like folks from San Francisco to me! It was very laid back, and everyone was friendly and happy. There was some kind of small ceremony in the middle and a war veteran who just arrived from Iraq was knighted.

Then the crowd started to disperse, and people seemed content to just touch the stones, take photos, and chat. The sunrise after the longest night was somewhat of a non-event–you couldn’t seen a thing in the hazy white English pre-dawn. A bit after the druids started clearing out a snowball fight erupted in the middle of the stones, with people ducking behind them and firing away! Sadly, I don’t have very good photos of that, but there’s a pretty good one here.

We went to Avebury afterwards, which was deserted, but had some distinct remains of rituals past, and lots of tracks in the snow. I was delighted to see the monuments still being used and lived with and loved.

English Winters

Traveling in England in the wintertime is like walking around with your eyes mostly closed. Drowsy gray skies, fog seeping in-between your scarf and your neck, under your coat, and around your fingertips. Last night I had a few pints with friends at the Coach & Horses, forgot to eat dinner, and ducked into a minicab to get home. London is starting to look familiar to me, with the low brick houses, white trim, and wiry black fences.

This morning I caught the Cardiff Central train from Paddington station to Bristol, heading straight into a daze of snow. The snow was falling in London last night–big, fat flakes against the black night–but the glowing flurry blowing around the train is indistinct, powdery pink and gray.

I’m trying to put the finishing touches on this paper, but even as I come to the end it seems like dragging my feet through sludge. My mind wants to be doing almost anything besides writing, and so I stare out of the window at the houses, trees, and fields diffused through the smeary snow.

The English countryside is a landscape dreaming of itself, re-iterated over centuries, absolutely secure in the belief that this is what the countryside is supposed to look like, the gold standard of pastoral bliss. Low and flat and still green beneath the hulking, ponderous clouds that seem so much more layered and complex than the puffy fluff over Texas or the flat gray Bay area mist.

Writing this has made me able to start on my paper again–something about a loose, descriptive narrative allows me to segue back into the messy jargon of New Media crashing into Archaeology.

Archaeology in Antartica


Cans, Discovery Hut

One of my former students (and current friends!) Allie is working with a biology research team catching fish in Antartica. In her spare time she’s documenting some of the historic structures around McMurdo Station. I don’t want to say too much, as I believe she’s in the early stages of research…but I don’t have to say much, just look at these lovely photos!

R.F. Scott's Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans, Antartica
Laboratory, R.F. Scott's Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans, Antartica
Allie, aka Sandwich

I’m amazed…and jealous! Hopefully I’ll get an update about her Antartica project when she gets back.

Brizzle TAG 2010

I’m headed off to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Meetings in Bristol in a couple of days and I’ve been trying to get my paper and my presentation together. The session I am in runs all day on Saturday, so I’m not sure what else I’ll be able to see, but here are a couple of sessions that I’d really like to catch:

Tradition in question
Julian Thomas (Manchester University)
Irene Garcia Rovira (University of Manchester)
It is now twenty years since the issue of tradition was explicitly addressed in a session at TAG. How far has our understanding developed in the intervening period?

Our view is that while cultural and social traditions are continually evoked in archaeological writings, explicit theorisation of the concept is surprisingly scarce. One reason for this is that tradition is often simply used as a placeholder for concepts that have fallen into question. Thus we might talk about ‘material traditions’ instead of ‘cultures’, or about ‘traditional societies’ as a means of side-stepping crude forms of social evolutionism. Yet in both cases, ‘tradition’ is reduced to a neutral term, which carries little interpretive force. Equally, within the social sciences at large, tradition has been treated with some ambivalence, perhaps because of its centrality to some forms of conservative thought. Although it was fundamental to aspects of practice theory in the 1970s and 1980s, tradition has faded a little from anthropological and sociological concern in the past two decades, possibly as a result of the complementary rise of interest in social memory and materiality.

Manifestos for materials
Dan Hicks (Oxford University)
Manifestos are re-emerging, perhaps: from Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto (2003), to Danny Miller and Sophie Woodward’s ‘Manifesto for a study of Denim’ (2007), to Bruno Latour’s ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ (2010). These manifestos are diverse, but while we might imagine manifestos to be concerned with human life, human thought, human politics, or human futures, material things/nonhumans figure prominently in these texts.

Pluralist practices: archaeology is nothing, archaeology is everything
Ffion Reynolds (Cardiff University)
Seren Griffiths
This session will explore the ways in which we approach our research.

Essentially, we want to tackle the question: who are you?

From a pluralist position one may argue that as a profession we become ‘archaeologists’ in a variety of ways. Do you call yourself an archaeologist first, or as in my case do you answer with a series of others labels/words? For example, are you a theorist first and foremost? Or an artist? Or are you fundamentally a writer or a philosopher? Does it matter to you how other people see your work?, or is it more to do with individual identity within a larger body of thought? How do you do your research? And how does it become archaeological? And how might your research create new concepts within archaeology? What would you like to leave behind? How would you like to be remembered?

It is to these types of questions that we would like to turn to in our session. It is an opportunity to look towards ourselves in more detail, rather than to the analogies that we use. We want to open up discussion that will perhaps question our own positions within a specific school of thought – a position which follows in Chris Tilley’s footsteps to some extent, in which he argues that as archaeologists, we arise in what is essentially an ‘undisciplined world’.

And the most intriguing title:

The evanescent milkman cometh: archaeologies of obscure complexities, actions, formation and transformation
Reuben Thorpe (University College London)
This session will focus on theory and methods that aim to tease out social process and social/physical mechanics that lie behind issues of site formation, residuality, redeposition and transformation.

New(ish) Neighbors

I’ve added a few new blog links to my long list, several of which are worth further mention.

Dr. Rosemary Joyce has been busy in the blogging world with What Makes Us Human at Psychology Today and The Berkeley Blog at UC Berkeley and her single author blog, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. I’m ashamed that while I knew about her contributions to The Berkeley Blog, I’ve missed the other two entirely. Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives is my favorite, with great articles about her teaching and sex and gender in the archaeological record. Rosemary also excels at what I am particularly lax at–answering comments. I can’t believe the patience she had in this particular comment thread about global warming and the archaeological record.

There’s the Diary of an Archaeological Intern, a blog written by Meghan Ferris, an Archaeological Intern with the Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat, Government of Prince Edward Island. She has a nice selection of photos and videos from archaeology on Prince Edward Island. I think some of the best outreach blogging is done by people who are starting in their profession, as they have the ability to still look at the field through the eyes of an outsider, giving more explanation than their more seasoned colleagues.

Passim in Passing is a very new blog from Brenna, a PhD student in the UK. She took up some of my discussion about wikileaks from a few days ago, posing additional, interesting questions. We’ll see how she gets on!

Finally, there is The Baking Archaeologist, who has more baking content than archaeology content right now. It’s an anonymous blog, which I’m never very excited about, but the cookie recipes look delicious and as a fellow baking archaeologist (I contend that I am unmatchable in pie-making) I have to offer solidarity.

As always, the best way to tell me (and the world) about your blog is to link to other blogs. Support your archaeo-blogging community!

Science, AAA, and Anthropology

I am not going to spend much time describing the controversy regarding the American Anthropological Association removing the word “science” from their long-range plan statement. What has been called #AAAfail is aptly covered by the great folks over at Neuroanthropology if you are interested in the details. My first reaction (also possibly my second and third) was more exasperation and disillusionment than outrage. It might be a problem of perception, but I share the feelings of exclusion and sometime condescension that archaeologists face when trying to reach out to our “parent” discipline, anthropology. If you are wondering about that tone of condescension, check out Savage Minds’s characterizing the critique of the AAA’s actions as having “as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown.” Bloggers get caught in the middle–how to complicate the public understanding of our practice and remain comprehensible is a fine art.

Anyway, I think there is a mostly good outcome of this controversy in that it has 1) made people really consider their ideas regarding science and the study of humans in present and past and 2) that there has now been a dialogue opened to discuss this apparent sore spot in the discipline. Perhaps a third beneficial outcome is that more people will read Neuroanthropology, and hopefully contribute to the wiki that they have created to discuss and edit the AAA Long-Term Plan.

Finally, I hope that there will be two other outcomes of this AAA PR disaster–that my fellow blogging archaeologists will (continue to) blog their research, demonstrating our own flavor of scientific truthiness, and that more anthropologists and archaeologists will read blogs and find them to be useful venues for discussion about our field.

Nostalgic, Personal, Neglected, Treasured, Rejected: The Other Photography in Archaeology

Fort Ross, Hipstamatic
This is my abstract for Heather Law’s TAG 2011 session, Open Dialogs in Archaeological Photography. I’m hoping that the photos I take will be worth the billing!

Our view of the past is hazy, inaccurate, hard to discern, never quite all there. Yet our record of such uncertainty is becoming dazzlingly clear; professional-quality digital SLR cameras producing high-dynamic range imaging are becoming the norm on archaeological projects and our photographic archives, once highly-curated collections of “scientific,” carefully set-up shots have exploded in size and diversified in content accordingly. Along with this extraordinary, high-tech verisimilitude runs a counter-narrative–photography on sites performed by students, workmen, professionals, and tourists using their cellphones.  These images are too casual, personal, low-rez, and are often unavailable to the official project. They find another life online, emailed to friends and posted on Flickr and Facebook, living beyond the archive and often becoming a much more visible public face than the more official photographs released by the project. 

Inspired by this tension between the personal and the formal and Damon Winter’s recent New York Times iPhone photo essay of soldiers in Afghanistan, I shed my cumbersome and conspicuous DSLR to explore the affective, casual, and nostalgic qualities of archaeological photography with my cellphone and on-board photo-editing applications. In a session focused on exploring the work that archaeological photography does, I will investigate the hazy, inaccurate, personal, and extra-archival qualities of the archaeological snapshot.

Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology

As the news cycled through the latest Wikileaks surprise–250,000 US Embassy Diplomatic Cables–my students were giving their final presentations in class. Ruth and I (with much technical assistance from Michael Ashley) taught a class on Archaeology and New Media this semester, culminating in a fairly open-ended final group project about some aspect of archaeology in the Bay Area.

The projects tended to be a mix of media that the students had produced themselves such as videos and photographs, along with historical materials that they gleaned from archives. Mixing their own microhistories with the historical archive results in more interesting, innovative, and intellectually robust interpretations of the past and emphasizes participatory culture and history-making.

Sadly, their eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined.

I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom. The students have taken photos that they aren’t sure they can use. They have gathered quotes from interviews that the archive refuses to publish. I try to make the students fully understand copyright law, their place in the educational system and their rights, and the consequences of violating copyright. But I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–I tell them to share, and, as much as they are able, to free information from obsolete or tyrannical bureaucracy. They are already learning to negotiate and operate within radical transparency. Facebook, Google and the government are omnipresent–collecting information at every turn–and the students are learning from this example and turning it back onto the companies that control content, rejecting the right to keep any information under lock and key.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

These collections are dying, strangled by ridiculous restrictions, outdated copyright law, and protectionist garbage. If my students commandeer and share archival material is it stealing media or is it liberating information? Many educators are horrified that students no longer read or reference books or journal articles that are not available online. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t actually encourage this behavior and boycott offline research. If something is not available, make it available. If you do not make your research widely available, then perhaps it is rightfully ignored.

Digitize and share your archive, by hook or crook. You might just be saving its life.

See also: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/29/the-revolution-will-be-digitised