Connected Pasts workshop

Thoughts from Connected Pasts 2014 workshop and meeting

This week I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Connected Pasts workshop and meeting in London, learning about network and complexity science and its application to archaeology and the past. The two days consisted of a three hour workshop introducing and exploring one of a number software packages which can be used to analyse networks on Monday morning, followed by talks and key note speeches on Monday afternoon and through Tuesday (full program and abstracts here). The conference was held at Imperial College London, and organised locally by Tim Evans of Imperial, with Tom Brughmans of Konstanz from the wider advisory committee.

The conference was billed as multidisciplinary (within the scope of the past), and largely lived up to that; I chatted to computer scientists, geographers, statisticians, classicists and lots of physicists and archaeologists. It also attracted an international group of speakers and attendees, largely from Central and Western Europe, though with some North Americans as well. It also attracted a predominantly young audience (well, for archaeology at least – but that’s a separate post!), which appeared to be dominated by PhD students and post-docs. All of these factors lead to a really engaging, open group of people which made the conference very enjoyable. Unlike some of the bigger archaeology conferences, people were very interested to talk to everyone, and mixed freely, which lead to some very interesting lunch and coffee conversations.

The workshop was excellent; as you can see from my awkward image above we were coaxed through an introductory tutorial on Cytoscape, one of the free to use software packages available for network analysis, until we were able to produce our own network visualisations from a set of Tom’s data. Getting practical experience manipulating the visualisations and generating summary statistics on the networks was very engaging, and immediately filled my head with excited thoughts about what data I had which might be examined using these techniques.

However a number of the papers later in the first day were quite challenging in their use of archaeological datasets. In particular one of the papers used a network which was based on the transmission of ‘ideas, iconographies, models’ between urban centres as a way of generating archaeologically meaningful interpretations of ‘cultural transmission’. Now, as an archaeologist this immediately makes me uncomfortable as the whole idea of diffusion/acculturation/creolisation/’romanisation’ or to put it simply, the way people and cultures interact and change each other, is a really big debate. It isn’t as simple as ‘x culture adopts y culture’, there’s always transfer both ways and sometimes new cultures occur which attach entirely new meanings to the objects we might associated with x or y.

Consequently the idea that you could just say ‘this idea moved from this town to this town in this direction’ seems a substantial simplification of a complex archaeological concept, and at the least needs heavy contextualisation and an established theoretical basis. For example, if the idea is ‘lets build hypocausts’ how do you say what a hypocaust really means? The appearance of hypocausts might mean the appearance of Romans, a fashion for Roman things, a change in the climate, or the appearance of a hypocaust builder to name just a few. I suspect that contextualisation may have been in the original work, though not in the paper as presented due to the network science focus, but it’d be interesting to see what the justification behind the data choices was.

Thinking about Roman/non-Roman contact made me a little concerned about using network analysis for dealing with cultural change after conquest or contact. From what I learned at the workshop, network analysis is built around nodes (e.g. buildings, sites, regions) and arcs between them (e.g. roads, movement of goods), and the fundamental unit is a pair of nodes. This emphasis on pairs and a directional relationship between them (at least in most of the papers on this I saw) seems to lead to a natural emphasis on polarity and unidirectional cultural transfer, which are ideas we’re trying to drag ourselves away from in the archaeology of the Roman period.

I wonder if non-directional links between nodes might alleviate some of the misgivings I have with the network analysis of ‘cultural’ contact between cities or states. A non-directional link would create space for the interaction between the two cultures to involve more than just ‘x culture adopts this from y culture’ inherent in the directional links and which seems like a simplification too far, leaving out much of the rich human context we’re trying to get to. The underlying archaeological theory indicates that when cultures interact the communication and adoption goes both ways even when one culture has substantial power over another, so it would make sense to give this space within the network analysis.I don’t know how this would change the outcomes, but it would stop the analysis technique from clashing at a fundamental paradigmatic level with much of the archaeological theory around cultural interaction in the Roman period at least. I need to find some network scientists I tie down long enough to explain all this to, and get their opinions!


Hopefully many of the slides from the two days will be up on figshare at some point, and I will put together a Storify of the tweets from the conference when I have recovered from the 5:45am mornings! Beyond those above, there were a number of other really interesting points raised at the meeting which hopefully I will put together into a conference review soon, probably for PIA or possibly The Crucible (HMSnews), or even a few more blog posts. But the one thing that I took home from the conference was that network and complexity analysis is definitely happening in archaeology, and it may just become a very important part of the analytical toolbox.

ISA 2012 Leuven (Day 3 – Biomaterials and Bioarchaeology)

  1. I’m currently at the 39th International Symposium on Archaeometry in Leuven, Belgium, where I have a poster to present. I’ll be writing a proper conference review when I return, but in the mean time I’ll be making informal collections of the tweets and discussing the conference here on a daily basis. There are also collections from Monday (Stone, Plaster, Pigments, Chronologies) and Tuesday (Metals and Metallurgical Ceramics) if you’re interested in earlier sessions.
  2. You can find the programme and abstracts for the hundreds of oral and poster presentations in the Scientific Programme PDF.
  3. RuthFT
    No #Isa2012Leuven tweets from me this morning, and there are excursions this afternoon. Normal service resumes tomorrow!
  4. The Bioarchaeology and Biomaterials session was put together by Henk Kars, however it’s not my area of expertise so I took a break from live tweeting.
  5. EAconferenceUK
    Cynthia Debono Spiteri, who presented experimental work at #exparch6, presented Dairying in Neolithic lipid analysis today at #ISA2012Leuven
  6. Cynthia was presenting interesting work on tracing what people were doing with their pots and whether they were making dairy products or not: she had previously showed some of her experimental work looking at vegetable v dairy/meat lipid absorbtion into pottery at the Experimental Archaeology Conference UK.
  7. ISA2012Leuven
    Today the ISA team have been out and about, with the various excursions, visiting Ramoil, Antwerp, Ghent and Leuven
  8. As is traditional now at ISA, Wednesday morning’s papers are followed by excursion(s). I enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon in the amazingly beautiful town of Leuven, which after the hectic first two days was rather a relief!
  9. RuthFT
    Drinking coffee and having a little chill out time in Leuven whilst my colleagues tour the town.
  10. By the evening everyone had returned to Leuven, and after some naps and relaxing, we enjoyed some of the excellent local food. Anyone wandering through the town would have seen many groups of archaeologists scattered across the bars and restaurants!

Fenland Council plan to scrap all pre-development archaeological assessment – roundup

Yesterday news of a Fenland Council announcement hit Twitter/Facebook and caused some real and unsurprising outrage amongst heritage people. I’ve done some digging to better understand the situation, so I thought I would share it with you.

First written, Jun 23, 13:20. Last update: 14:24 on Jun 27th 2011. I’m afraid that due to needing to prepare for a coming week of experimental metallurgy, I haven’t been able to keep up with the debate after this point, so the below blog post only covers the early developments. The Facebook group has become a focal point for keeping track of the issue, so I encourage you to take a look there.

If you feel strongly about the issues discussed below, please consider signing the petition to object.

Check out the discussion of the NPPF below which looks like it could be an attempt by central government to deregulate planning protection and open up current law to allow local councils to push aside archaeological and heritage protections. It’s important we keep an eye on this – it could pose a real threat to cultural heritage.

The speech

On the 21st of June at the 4th annual Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard/Fenland Council Building and Design Awards final, at Wisbech Boathouse, Alan Melton, the leader of the Fenland Council, gave a “defining policy statement and announcement of the year” (his words). This, and the fact that Cllr Melton is the Council Leader, seems to suggest that the speech should not be dismissed as hyperbole or off-target comment, and probably does represent the intentions of the Council. In addition if we examine the NPPF and budget documents discussed below (see Government Policy Angles below) Cllr Melton’s words fit perfectly within the governments push to solve economic problems by ‘prioritising growth’ over any other aspect, including the environment, heritage, etc.

He stated that conservation rules would be relaxed and areas “zoned for development” in order to provide 11,000-16,000 new homes. He referred to the laws governing conservation of heritage and the environment as “scriptures of the new religion” and to those that supported them as “bunny huggers”. The EDP ran a piece on it the following day – you can view it here. One interesting quote:

“I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an Archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda. With one exception, in local known historical areas, such as next to a 1000 year old church. Common sense will prevail! (Neale Wade springs to mind) The bunny huggers won’t like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out.

The term ‘bunny huggers’ appears to originate from an interview by Prince Phillip with the BBC, where he used it to describe those who are vocal about animal welfare. Cllr Melton’s use of the phrase seems calculated both to appeal to a certain type of person, and to be intentionally insulting to archaeologists, though other Conservatives have brushed over this as simply not great “but it sure beats the sort of dry, flavourless, super-politically-correct speeches we hear so often from other areas.  And frankly, it was obviously a flippant and humorous remark – the diggers and delvers don’t need to get so upset about it.” I hadn’t realised politics had devolved to the point where simply insulting those you don’t agree with is acceptable activity.

The full text of his speech can be found here and on the Wisbech Standard site here. The Wisbech Standard followed up with an article on Thursday afternoon detailing some of the archaeological objections, and an almost identical article appeared on the EDP site about the same time.

The Councillor

It should be pointed out that Conservative Cllr Melton (c.59) used to be a bricklayer and then building site manager (see email below), so he probably has intimate knowledge of the construction process from the perspective of a developer, and I imagine a great deal of friends and networks in the development industry. He is currently listed as being a freelance quantity surveyor, health and safety consultant and project manager. Fenland Citizen listed his achievements in 2005 as almost entirely related to his ability to ensure development went ahead. He refers to “experiences I endured in a former life” which would suggest he has a negative outlook on archaeological and conservation requirements. He has just been re-elected in the May 5th 2011 elections.

It seems fair to assume a certain level of conflict of interest on this topic.

It is also interesting to note that Cllr Melton was suspended as Fenland Council Leader in 2005 for bringing his office into disrepute by disclosing confidential information to a local journalist. The suspension was the result of Cllr Melton revealing to a journalist that he has been found innocent of previous complaints to the Standards committee, prior to that ruling becoming public. It is unclear what those previous complaints concerned, however this may be linked to his stepping down as Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Rural Commission in 2005 (thanks to eagle-eyed Matt for that).

Emails to Cllr Melton

With Cllr Melton’s personal email address available on his Fenland Council page, many archaeologists have been sending him emails asking him politely to clarify his comments. One early reply to an enquiry is as follows:

Long live Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles is the Secretary for State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Conservative party and was Chairman of the Party until 2010. Several emails have been submitted to Mr Pickles to see if he does agree with Cllr Melton, who seems to be somewhat of a fan.

Later in the day (Thursday) some slightly more intelligent responses were received:

In a former life I was a building manager, and I know just how costly these investigations are. Particularly after the site has been criss-crossed with trenches, or site stripped. Footing excavation is normally to a 1M depth. Why not inspect with building control officers. Or is that too simple!
It is interesting that the of the comments I have received, only those with vested interests have shown alarm with no compromise. As I matter of interest, I am going to commission a survey of all digs over a period of years, and just find out how many have yielded anything of interest.
I also intend to make my comments available to the Minister.”

Yes. Vested interests in the protection of our archaeological heritage and environment, and thousands of jobs. I think this reply is indicative of a lack of understanding of archaeology at all – what exactly counts as “of interest” to the councillor?

Cllr Melton also emailed Conservative colleagues to say the following late on Thursday:

I don’t tweet, but what a wonderful day. To be attacked by bunny huggers, historic lefties and the vested interested professional classes. Eric Pickles will be extremely proud of me.

I wonder if he realises that ‘professional class’ excavators and local government workers often earn barely above the minimum wage, and do the job because we want to add to human knowledge and to protect the valuable remains of our past. We don’t do it for profit, which isn’t something which can be said of most developers.

Clearly this behaviour is unfitting for an elected councillor, let alone the leader of a local council. A Freedom of Information request regarding archaeological heritage and bunny huggers, also detailed here, so it will be interesting to see what he has been saying about archaeology behind closed doors (or rather closed screens).

The archaeological reaction

The news that a local council is intending to summarily dismiss planning legislation and guidelines, potentially acting against EU and UK laws in the process, has caused significant shock and a wave of anger and depression across archaeologists on the web and social networks.

Over at Digging the Dirt, an excavation archaeologists’ website, this has been summed up as an attempt to remove all archaeological planning conditions beyond watching briefs – though Cllr Melton’s words to me make it unlikely that they’ll even require the later. Digging the Dirt take an irreverent approach, a reaction to what seems like a truly farcical, unimaginable, ludicrous move by Fenland Council. They followed up with another entry on Friday the 24th, raising a very good point concerning the lack of any concrete statements of intent from any of the major archaeological organisations – CBA, IfA or English Heritage. These are the organisations we pay to lobby on behalf of the archaeological heritage, we expect something more than hot-air in response to this issue.

The Institute for Archaeologists released a pre-statement statement, stating  that they are contacting Fenland Council to ascertain what this statement by Cllr Melton actually means. Still waiting on the actual statement from the IfA.

On the BritArch email list discussion has taken place, at least twice, along with sharing of Cllr Melton’s responses to individual emails, including some rather strange and perhaps illogical statements by the councillor. Interpretation of these would seem to suggest that he has a fundamental lack of understanding of archaeology, and archaeological practice. In addition it is suggested he lacks an understanding of UK and EU planning legislation.

On BAJR Federation, an archaeologists’ forum and website, there have been a number of threads. Cllr Melton’s words have been interpreted as hypocritical – the Conservatives continue to ‘bang-on’ about heritage whilst clearly assigning it no real value – and again question whether Cllr Melton really understands planning structure within the Fenland Council itself. Do they not have their own plans which took years to design and implement and which, presumably, cannot be simply discarded?

Council for British Archaeology have issued a statement as part of The Archaeology Forum  criticising what they see as “business-led planning that may find it too much to resist the temptation of setting aside inconvenient truths about the impact of development on the historic and natural environment”. The statement indicates that they are in discussion with English Heritage and Cambridgeshire County Council to try and get some statement from Fenland Council or another body over Cllr Melton’s statements. They close with a pointed remark about what this says about the enaction of the Conservatives’ ‘localism’ agenda which is heavily reliant on ‘business-led’ and deregulated developments.

Rescue – The British Archaeological Trust (a member of The Archaeology Forum) have issued a statement here (Friday 24th June pm). They stated their fundamental disagreement with Cllr Melton’s statements in very clear terms, and underlined the point that many people are making – that no matter how dire the economic situation, you cannot sacrifice the resources of the future to short-term gain. They also repeat the existence of EU laws regarding the protection of heritage – which we may have to rely on in the near future.

On Facebook there is a group to facilitate gathering information and communication in order to opposed the plans announced by Cllr Melton – you can join it here.

There have been limited blog responses, though there’s one here at Janet E Davis’ blog, where she discusses the fact that archaeologists of all people don’t really like rabbits and the term ‘bunny hugger’ (used as an insult by Cllr Melton) is rather inappropriately applied! Another good one was posted on Thursday 23rd at Letters from Li Dongni, which discussed Cllr Melton’s rather misleading statement that if archaeological investigation hadn’t cost so much, more money could be sent on teachers/schools. As the author indicates, archaeological excavations cut into the developers profit, not the school’s budget for teaching. Make sure you read the comments – the author makes a fantastic defence against a rather cowardly comment regarding their ‘vested interests’ somehow making the authors objections entirely unimportant.

On Monday 27th June a letter signed by 32 leading archaeologists was published in the Cambridgeshire Times and Wisbech Standard. I hardly expected that to mean all of the leading academic heads of university departments across the country and a number from the US and Sweden; the Chair of the Local Government Association of Archaeologists; the Editor of Antiquity, managing directors of a number of archaeological units; the Director of the Council for British Archaeology; the Research Manager and Curators of the British Museum, deputy vice chancellor of Cambridge University, and Lord Renfrew. When they said leading, they meant it!

In addition it seems that CBA director Mike Heyworth will be speaking on Radio 4 on the afternoon of Monday 27th June regarding this matter – colloquially termed bunnygate.

It remains to be seen whether Cllr Melton will issue an intelligent response to these inquiries, or whether we will receive clarifications from Fenland Council or Cambridgeshire Council over exactly what they really mean.

Wider reactions

So far there have been very limited reactions in the press, and no national press articles (that I have been able to track down). The Wisbech Standard and EDP are local papers running very similar (presumably the same author) pieces at the moment (see above), but the EDP does have a reader poll on its current article page – you can find it half-way down in a box embedded in the text. You have to vote to see the answers – but they currently sit around 90%+ against the relaxation of rules. The Cambridgeshire Times also has a quite generic article reporting the incident.

I also noticed on Sunday a lovely tongue-in-cheek discussion of archaeologists’ feelings for bunnies over at the Bad Science Forums.

Fenland Council Policy and Strategy and the wider planning strategy

Future Fenland Policy

One early reader of this blog has noted that the Fenland Council itself has very clear guidelines regarding archaeology and monuments in its Core Strategy and Development Policies Preferred Options 2 document. This document appears to be a draft Local Development Framework (LDF) for replacing the 1993 and 2001 strategies currently in use, and was produced in September 2007. From what I can make of the labyrinthine Fenland Council website, it is in consultation at the moment (July-August 2011) and will be redrafted for re-consultation in January/February 2012.

This states:

Policies and Plan will indicate that:

  • development proposals at all sites of known or potential archaeological interest will require the submission of an archaeological evaluation/assessment by a suitably qualified person.
  • development will not be permitted where proposals would adversely affect nationally important archaeological sites, including Scheduled Ancient Monuments
  • where development is granted at sites of archaeological interest, the insitu preservation of remains is preferred.  Where this is not justified or feasible, provision should be made for a programme of excavation, recording and reporting of remains to take place before development starts.”

Current Fenland Policy

Perhaps more pertinently, the Fenland Council website states that the Neighbourhood Planning – Local Development Scheme (Third Revision March 2011), which is “the only Development Plan Document that we will produce for the foreseeable future as part of an innovative new approach to planning policy that will help deliver the Council’s vision for growth within Fenland” is current practice. It states that the ‘E6’ and ‘E7’ policies from the 1993 plan “forms the basis for planning decisions in Fenland.” If we chase this we can see that the 1993 plan description of the E6 and E7 policies are copies of PPG 16 – i.e. require all the standard archaeological protection and mitigation measures.

Thus an examination of Fenland Council’s current planning policy indicates that Cllr Melton’s comments are entirely out of sync with both the current planning policy and strategy, and the proposed new core strategies. So far there has been no statement from Fenland Council regarding this conflict, nor from Cambridgeshire County Council, though both are expected (as of 13:15 24rd June).

Government policy angles – a removal of restrictions?

Ben Jervis brought the following to my attention (thank you!). There is currently a ‘National Planning Policy Framework practitioners advisory group‘ which might more accurately be described as four men (3/4 of whom are Conservatives) sitting in an office and agreeing to to scrap any clear planning guidance in order to allow economic growth. As has been discussed by others, having a planning system that gives legal priority to economic growth over all other aspects isn’t the ‘localist’ agenda the Conservatives are triumphing, it’s just a return to traditional Conservative ideas of letting corporate interests do what they want whether that’s actually any good for society or not.

These four have put together an extremely brief document, which is either out for consultation already or will be so ‘in the summer’. It looks like it might be the basis for the entire UK planning Strategy, and it’s been drawn up in only six months by an extremely limited number of people with dominant Conservative politics. If this goes ahead (a final version is due January 2012) then Fenland Council’s moves will be just the first of many – you can throw out any hope of the construction industry being tempered by environmental, cultural or heritage concerns (beyond the basic – don’t build on top of Stonehenge type assessments), and look forwards to uncontrolled development across the country in the name of ‘economic development’ – a development which it seems likely will generate increased profits for developers with no requirement for tangible social benefits for the rest of us.

Unfortunately this NPPF document is an inherent part of the government’s “Plan for Growth” statement (an attempt to Policy write our way out of recession), which contains statements such as (page 23) “introduce a powerful new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’” and “set clear expectations that with immediate effect local planning authorities and other bodies should prioritise growth and jobs“. This very clearly indicates that the NPPF is an inherent part of the governments plans to tackle economic difficulties, and one has to wonder whether Cllr Melton got the nod to test-run this scrapping of archaeological protection from further up the Conservative food-chain as a step towards introducing the NPPF in 2012.

The future?

Exactly where this is all taking us is unclear. If one local Council feels it can scrap archaeological and conservation process, including the archaeological ‘guidance’ issued by the UK government, then other councils may follow suit. But Cllr Melton is in for a rude awakening if he thinks he can just brush us aside. You cannot simply decide that archaeology is too expensive (and for whom – the developers?) to protect.

The first solid case where archaeology is clearly under threat from a development and the Council has failed to ask for suitable investigation or mitigation is likely to be jumped on. If Cllr Melton thinks that he is going to be cutting costs for developers and the Council this way, he is in for a surprise. Where PPS5 is ignored there will be complaints at local government level, appeals, official complaints at national level and potentially a move to take it to Judicial Review. Even putting aside UK law and guidance, Fenland Council’s moves could be resisted through appeal to EU laws. With the development held up and the Council forced to defend its decision every step of the way, this unlikely to be a cost-cutting move.

I doubt any other Council will follow Cllr Melton’s moves, no matter what words of ‘support’ he has received up to this point. They will be waiting to see what happens, and how the heritage sector responds. If we don’t, and Fenland Council’s decision is echoed across the UK, the shape of the archaeology profession in the UK is likely to be radically altered as other councils copy Fenland’s approach.

However, challenges will only work if the NPPF document (discussed above) does not go through – we have to read and respond to this via our associations and MPs as soon as it goes to consultation. If the document goes through you can basically say goodbye to the protections that have allowed the UK to establish itself as a world-leader in heritage protection, with all the tourist buisness that attracts. Every year development results in archaeological excavations that enable us to understand more and more about our country, our origins, the people we came from, our identity as a nation.You can say goodbye to that, and to the thousands of archaeological practitioners who represent some of the best trained and most experienced in the world.

We stand to loose countless uninvestigated, unacknowledged, unrecorded archaeological sites and we will have no way of knowing what we lost. We will return to the bad old days of the 1960s, where local county archaeologists had to drive around the county peering over fences and into trenches in the hope of recording archaeology before it was destroyed by developers. Where only the biggest and boldest of archaeological sites were recognised and hastily recorded in the few weeks gracefully given by developers before the whole lot was bulldozed. Frankly, that’s not a glorious past I wish to return to.

Viking food

I’m cooking dinner for some friends tomorrow, and in order to match a game we’re playing I decided to do a ‘Viking’ style meal. This became a lot more difficult when I remembered it would have to be vegetarian!

Turns out that most of the meals referred to in texts of the right(ish) period are rather meat-based. This is unsurprising considering the only meals worth talking about are feasts and celebrations. There was mention of the Leek and Herb broth for injured warriors… but as I don’t need to sniff anyone’s open stomach-wounds to see if their guts have been punctured I decided against that.

In the end I used a small guide I found on the internet entitled Early medieval Norse food and feasting. This is 9th-12th century in its perspective, and is a handy crib-sheet on what ingredients one could get away with. It’s actually by a re-enactment group from Australia, but I rather liked the tone and the information seemed accurate enough.Obviously I didn’t bother checking it very hard because I’m just interested in grabbing ideas for a dinner, but I appreciated that it appeared to include a list of vegetable evidence that had been found in archaeological contexts.

Anyway, I’ve decided to go for a pea and watercress soup, honey-glazed roasted root vegetable (obviously without any potatoes!) and fresh bread and butter. I also recieved a rather helpful page on Scandinavian cheeses from Alun, and am looking forwards to trying out some Jarlsberg. If anyone else has any suggestions, let me know!

Historical Metallurgy Society

For anyone who’s interested in the study of ancient and indeed industrial metal working and production, can I recommend the lovely Historical Metallurgy Society?

I am obviously a little biased in this respect as I am involved with the Society, but that’s because;

a) the work they help to publish and coordinate is really interesting, and
b) they are lovely people to work with!

I’m reminded of this largely because I have completely forgotten to pay my subscription (which is only £6 for students!) and consequently I haven’t received a copy of the newsletter (HMSNews) which means that once again it is only from someone else’s comments that I know my last conference review has been published.

If you’re working on sites with metallurgical debris, on debris itself or just interested in the history of industries, I can thoroughly recommend the society. And if you’re a student it’s a bargain!

Osborne’s October 20th cuts – a personal assessment

I made the effort today to read through reports on the spending cuts announced yesterday evening. It’s clear that they are going to have particularly pernicious affects on the poor and the disabled, but I was actually surprised to find that they’ll have a pretty clear affect on my own situation.

Usually I find it hard to register such often vague, veiled and complex economic announcements in terms of my own position, but presumably because the cuts are so wide reaching and so brutal it’s been rather easy to see how this will affect myself and other archaeologists.

On a day-to-day level, the increases in travel costs will make it increasingly expensive to visit my partner in Brighton and will increase the burden of travel costs within London. As these form the third and second largest parts of my budget respectively, this is likely to have a noticeable impact on my day-to-day spending. If it really does result in the predicted 30% rise in costs by the time I finish, that’ll have a major impact on whether I can afford to spend all of my third year in London. If I have to chose to live at home, that’s likely to have a negative impact on my work due to restricted access to books, papers, laboratories and pastoral support.

Considering the longer term and what will happen to me after I graduate the 40% cut to university teaching budgets and the fact that I am a humanities/social science person suggests that the academic jobs I might have hoped for after graduating will be few and far between.

I could fall back to public sector heritage management, which I have been doing on and off between university courses, but I think we all know that’s likely to be disproportionately squeezed. Cultural Resource Managment/Heritage is likely to be seen as non-essential like libraries and youth centres, and unlike them no one sees the HER/SMR or County archaeologist on the high street. The public aren’t likely to protest if HER/SMR staff, who are often on short contracts, aren’t renewed and those centres slowly slip into mothballs. So no job there for me.

I don’t have much experience excavating, but I might pass as a finds or post-ex specialist for a unit. However beyond the large public works still supported by the government (I’m looking at that A11 expansion!) I don’t see a lot of promise for private sector archaeology either. The field hasn’t picked up much since 2009 when redundancies were particular active, and if Osborne’s gamble doesn’t work and the private sector doesn’t pick up the slack then new buildings won’t go ahead and work will be scarce for archaeological units. With a good chunk of archaeology’s well-qualified and experienced work force already unemployed, I don’t fancy my chances hitting that field.

The only ray of sunshine in my job prospects upon graduation is the free museums, which the goverment is continuing to support (for how long I am uncertain). So the British Museum, who actually employ people in my specialisation, is still a good destination. But of course the local museums who run off council support are likely to again suffer the axe labelled ‘non-essential’, so I don’t fancy my chances there much either.

With the predicted 40,000 job cuts for teachers, it’s not even like I could re-train for that!

In short, it looks like a pinch in the short-term, and devastation to the majority of my job prospects in the medium-term. We all guessed the government didn’t value archaeology, heritage or humanities teaching for more than lip-service and its potential for beautiful photo opportunities, but I didn’t expect it to be so clearly demonstrated.

First thoughts: Museum of London’s new Lower Gallery

This afternoon I visited the Museum of London. Although I am very familiar with the first floor galleries (prehistory to the medieval period) and I have to admit to being a little bit critical of some of these, I was really impressed with the new Lower Gallery.

I remember the days when I used to take friends or family to the MoL, and just leave when we had finished seeing the medieval stuff. My opinion of the lower gallery, with all its boring mayoral, city, alderman and guilds left-overs was never that high. I am not keen on large golden carriages.

But a while back they closed the whole level for a complete refit. I thought it would be a lick of paint and a bit of an improvement. My first impression this afternoon is that they’ve completely rethought, reanalysed and re-engineered the whole gallery.

Gone are most of the dull things I really wasn’t interested, and as far as I could see only one golden carriage survived (moved away from the main area and into a corner). In its place is a set of galleries covering 1666 through to the modern day, with thousands of objects, loads of interactives and no namby-pamby ignoring of contentious political issues.

One display that really stuck in my mind was the section on the suffragette movement, which was a real surprise and actually quite moving. I’ve never seen a good display, or really any display, tackling that issue. There were also displays right into the1980s, and the Brixton riots. In addition to race rights, the curators covered things like ongoing feminist and sexuality struggles, and the poll tax riots. I was incredibly impressed that the museum had put so much effort into the modern displays, as due to the temporal proximity of the subject I find displays often feel a little half-finished and uncertain.

I’ll admit that I was visiting purely for pleasure and wasn’t engaging a critical eye, but the displays were surprisingly intricate, detailed, interesting and emotive. I will give the standard criticism of modern museum galleries – it was very difficult to get information on individual objects, and often the usual descriptive signs were completely missing. In addition we did get lost and completely missed a section of the gallery, so clearer signing would be really useful in enabling visitors to move chronologically (the galleries are supposed to be interacted with in that way).

I would have loved it if a more in-depth handbook was available for people like me, who really want to know about objects rather than passively marvel in the display. The Victorian section had some fantastic period photographs with great contexts and associated objects and costume, but I was really frustrated when they didn’t always have any information cards. In addition, rather than number everything, the curators had little pictures of the objects on the information cards below, which were surprisingly hard to match up. It’s very difficult to discern one black-and-white photograph from another when they are the size of a postage stamp!

That said the Victorian gallery and the one covering the period up to the first world war (together named ‘People’s City’ by the curators) were really entrancing. I was captivated by many of the displays, and lagged signficantly behind my non-archaeology companion. Walking through the Victorian Street, which features a number of shop fronts and shop rooms fitted out with period objects and themes made me long to own a time-machine, and I always consider that a good mark of a recreation!

The whole trip was a little spur-of-the-moment, so a full review with photographs will probably have to wait for another time, but I can thoroughly recommend the new lower galleries. It’s clear that rather than simply redesigning the previous galleries, the museum were incredibly brave and went for a complete and total revisioning of what the space could be used for.

The irony is of course that I found the experience rather passive because of the lack of information available on many of the pieces, despite the fact that the the gallery is supposed to be ‘interactive’. I guess that’s down to how I experience museums – I want to seek out new information and learn new things, rather than passively accept the veracity of the highly constructed and essentially completely faked ‘scene’ or ‘experience’ that the museum presents me with. But it was an extremely attractive, engaging and often emotive scene, I’ll give them that!

Archaeology in Crisis?

I received an email a while back and completely forgot to mention this:

Schlanger, N., and Aitchison, K. (eds) (2010), Archaeology and the Global Economic Crisis. Tervuren: Culture Lab Éditions.

Note, i.a., chapters 4 (by Kenneth Aitchison, with annex 1 at end of volume) and 5 (by Anthony Sinclair) on the prospects for archaeology in the UK.

I haven’t read it myself, but that’s because it’s 150 pages long and I’m not working in commercial archaeology at the moment. But I imagine that considering it’s joint authored by Kenny Aitchison it’ll be very relevant to the UK situation.

To Huttenberg, and beyond!

Well it’s been a busy couple of days here!

Things have been a little stressful with the analysis of the Crosby Garret Roman cavalry parade/sports helmet. Not allowed to say much about that unfortunately, but will hopefully update at some point in the distant future after the sale and everything has settled down. The analysis went well though, and although we were pushed for time I managed a good number of analyses over a wide selection of areas, so I’m pleased with that.

Here’s a selection of the internet pieces on the helmet:

M&H on the Tullie House appeal
BBC news piece with Georgie from Christies
Wikipedia entry (not convinced it’s correct though)
Tullie House appeal
Guardian newspaper
PAS news statement
Harry Mount at the Telegraph opinion piece
Telegraph news piece

On a more personal note, I’m flying to Austria on the 28th of this month! I know, a surprise for me too. My supervisor had been talking about some material from the Huttenberg area for some time, but it’s only in the last week that things have come together. Which is great, as this is the Ferrum Noricum area that I’ve mentioned before, but a little inconvenient as I have to travel there to sample before the 3rd October!

This has necessitated two rather rushed ’emergency’ funding applications to the department and the Graduate awards scheme, in the hope that I can get money for the cost of such an activity. Inconveniently the trip falls between a change in funding structures so I can’t access the money that would normally be put aside for this from my funding body, the AHRC.

But we are pressing on, and I booked plane tickets with the vile and detestable Ryanair today, along with travel insurance from someone a little less enraging. Words cannot express how much I dislike Ryanair, but they were £100+ clearly the cheaper (even after their devious little additions), so I shall be flying with them. I’m at the end of my quarterly scholarship and paying for the flights out of my own pocket means that I shall be reverting back to raman noodles for the rest of the month. But such is the price of academic progress!

Of course, there’s just one tiny problem. I don’t speak a word of German. What can go wrong!

HMS Accidental and Experimental Archaeology Conference

Last week I volunteered at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Accidental and Experimental Archaeology Conference. The meeting was organised by David Dungworth of English Heritage, and Roger Doonan of Sheffield University, and took place at West Dean College, near Chichester.

A number of UCL students arrived on Tuesday to help with the set-up for the conference, and I joined them on Tuesday evening. Normally volunteering at a conference is a good way of getting in cheap/free and not having to do too much. Not this time! We were crushing charcoal and ore, mixing clay, chopping wood and building furnaces! I can’t remember the last time I was covered in so much dirt and dust.

The conference itself ran Thursday and Friday, with papers on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, and seven or more experiments running on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Thursday’s focus was iron production, and Friday’s was non-ferrous metallurgy.

I missed some of the Thursday morning papers due to helping out with the furnaces, but the papers I saw by David Dungworth, Roger Doonan and the Crews were extremely interesting. It was quite amusing to see Roger attempting to lever some theory into experimental archaeology, and he essentially gave a fantastic justification for undertaking reconstructions as a way of getting into the pre-historic mind.

Unfortunately the Crews weren’t able to come to the conference, but their paper was given by someone else and it was interesting to hear the details of a number of unpublished experiments, as well as their own thoughts on experimental techniques. David’s paper noted a number of inbalances in experimental archaeology, including the male dominance. Much to my irritation, but perhaps predictably, at least one of the commentators stated that women weren’t strong enough to take part in many of the activities of iron smelting. I won’t go into a long and protracted refutation of that, but suffice to say I made a good effort at disproving that.

The experiments themselves were really interesting. I was extremely lucky that Terry invited me to help him with his bloomery experiment, and I got to experience building and running a furnace. It was a fantastic experience and I came back from the conference extremely keen on taking part in more experimental work.

The real ‘experts’ (though they wouldn’t allow anyone to call them that) were Lee Saunder, Shelton Browder and Stephen Mankowski who had travelled over from the US and were certainly the most successful of the experimenters, producing several blooms and demonstrating an innovative technique for creating steel from iron in a miniature furnace. Gerry McDonnell’s furnace produced a bloom which when forged appeard to contain liquid metal – he had been attempting to produce cast iron so he may have been successful.

Whilst those experiments all ran on electric blowers, the hand-blown furnaces were less successful, though in most parts this was due both to the relative inexperience of the experimenters (at least when compared to the Americans!) and the focus on much older and less substantial structures.

It was remarked at the conference what a shame it is that we don’t get together to experiment more often. Having so many experienced people in one place meant that it was really easy to get advice, opinions and information from a variety of different areas of expertise. The main problem is presumably the cost – the quantity of charcoal used over the two days was quite staggering. The real barriers to experimental work is this cost, as well as the difficulty in obtaining ores. Of secondary difficulty, but in the cases of city-dwellers still significant, is the difficulty in arranging a venue for the furnace and obtaining clays.

However the conference relieved all these issues, largely down to David Dungworth’s hard work in providing all the necessary materials, even down to haemtite ores. As a result, it was a fantastic opportunity for both the experimenters who were able to share experience and debate long into the wee hours, as well as the attendees who were able to witness experimental archaeometallurgy in some cases for the first time. I know I for one have now got the bug, and desperately wishing I had a big enough garden to build a furnace in!

I think I can say that, from my point of view, the conference was a resounding success. The papers were good, the experiements were interesting and varied, and people were abel to get involved with them as much as they wanted to. Everyone was happy to have people volunteer for bellows duty! It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about experimental archaeometallurgy first hand, and to meet and talk with a good number of the researchers currently at work in Britain. The venue was absolutely beautiful, and almost entirely nothing like a college, and the catering and service were fantastic.

Whilst I imagine some of the experimental sessions could have lacked the immediacy of oral papers, all experimenters were more than willing to chat about their work and to accept volunteers if approached. All in all, a splendid way to spend a few days, and a brilliant chance to mess around in the mud with some really fantastic people!