Personal Trepidation in the Field: reflecting on my second season at Ҫatalhöyük

Many of you may know that six (!) weeks ago now I arrived back in the UK after spending my second field season at the Neolithic site of Ҫatalhöyük in southern central Turkey. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about my experience on the site this year for a while now. Six weeks to be exact. But in the midst of graduating*, working full time, moving house (meaning a week and a half without internet *shudders*), and preparing to travel to Egypt at the end of September (more on that to come) I seem to have had very little time to actually sit down and write anything. Life, eh. Tonight however, after a much needed long soak in the bath (featuring candles and the Braveheart soundtrack. Of course.) I’m finding myself feeling relaxed and reflecting on how lucky I am to have been given the opportunity to work on such incredible site as Ҫatalhöyük not only once, but twice. And I feel like writing about it.

So where to begin? I would say that, first of all, Ҫatalhöyük is mind-blowing. If you ever get the chance to visit – go! From the wall paintings, burials and intriguing figurines, to the 20+ meters of excavated houses stacked on top of one another representing over 1000 years of human occupation – it will literally take your breath away. People come from all over the world to visit the site, which was designated in 2012 as a World Heritage Site, and speaking to visitors reminds you of how impactful archaeology, and the tangible remains of the past can be on people’s lives. It can bring people together in joint wonder and a desire to cooperate in understanding and interpreting our shared past. I believe that Ҫatalhöyük, more than many other sites, has the ability to do this – for both the visitors and the researchers who work there. And so I’m aware of how lucky I am to be a part of the Ҫatalhöyük Research Project’s Visualisation Team, to be a part of the bridge that connects the researchers and the visitors together in a shared understanding of the place, and to help bring new interpretations to a wider audience both on and off-site.

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Looking towards the North Shelter at Catalhoyuk from the top of the mound with the Konya plain stretching out beyond.

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The North Shelter from the Dig House. This view gives a good impression of the mound!

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Inside the North Shelter – the archaeology here is incredible!

And so I find myself reflecting on what I’ve learned from working at such an internationally recognised site, which is hugely important to so many people, and how it has impacted me personally. The 2016 field season was, at times, a struggle for me, and I would say it was both completely different and exactly the same as my first field season. I experienced the same apprehensive feeling before travelling there, the same sense of awe at the scale and richness of the site once there, and the same feeling of pride at what we’d achieved on leaving. Yet, inevitably, many things were different. I was working with a completely different team, being the only returner bar our fabulous director Sara Perry and our incredibly talented graphic designer, Ian Kirkpatrick (you guys are awesome!). And with this came new highs and lows; the joys of getting to know three new colleagues, seeing their passions, working with and alongside them, and watching their love, enthusiasm and awe for the site grow to match my own. This was probably one of the things I enjoyed the most about being at Ҫatal this year. Between us we achieved a HUGE amount, collaborating with many others from the wider international Ҫatalhöyük Research Project to write blog posts, social media post for Twitter and Facebook, produce a new family trail, design and print new signage in the Visitors Centre, create videos, host a game jam, and develop ideas for the interpretation of four new Replica Houses which are in the process of being built on the site. (Look out for the 2016 Archive Report in the new year for full details on what we did). And as well as this many of us, including myself, worked on our own projects and dissertations. During the 2015 season I took over the task of collating and analysing the visitor data, the results of which you can read in the 2015 Archive Report, and I carried this on this year with the hope that I can use it for the publication of my dissertation (I’m getting round to telling you all about this, I promise). And so we were a busy team – a whirlwind of fun, laughter and hard work for two weeks!

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Heritage Superheroes! The Visualisation Team 2016 + friends: from left to right Tara, Izzy, Joka, Burcu, Levent, Ian, Dena, Ali, me and Sara. There was never a dull moment with this lot!

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We were a fun-loving international team from Ege University (Turkey) and the University of York (UK). And between us we struggled to take a serious photo! From left to right: Burcu, Dena, Izzy, Sara, me and Tara. (Photo by Ali)

Yet amongst all the happiness and laughter I experienced some emotions which were not so welcome, and which I hadn’t felt as intensely last year. Mostly doubt in my skills as a heritage professional, and my contribution to the project. I realised I’ve written about this feeling before, when talking about completing my dissertation, and I have a suspicion that I’m not the only recent graduate who has felt this way working in the field. And it’s probably not the last time I’ll feel it. But reflecting on this has made me realise it was probably a natural reaction to working with such talented, incredible colleagues and one which I perhaps shouldn’t have allowed myself to fall victim to. Competition is a funny thing, something I will no doubt have to deal with at varying points in my career (we’re all human, right?!) – and so I shouldn’t have let it detract from recognising the things I did achieve and the skills I do have.

Ҫatalhöyük can sometimes seem an intimidating place for someone just starting out in heritage and archaeology – not only because of the world-class archaeology, it’s reverence in the archaeological world and its lasting legacy on this, but also because of the standard of intellectual and academic practice which goes on there. It is filled with incredible people, both national and international, and the opportunity I’ve had to be around these people will no doubt have a lasting impact on my career trajectory in the heritage sector. I can already tell that Ҫatalhöyük has pushed me to overcome personal trepidations and given me a desire to learn new skills and try out aspects of heritage interpretation that I never thought I would. But mostly it has taught me to have confidence in my abilities, and not to let that confidence get knocked in an environment and sector where it could so easily get lost. And finally, it has taught me to value the support and friendship of my colleagues and peers who probably, more often than not, are feeling exactly the same way.

I feel like there’s a lot more I could say about my experience of working at Ҫatalhöyük, and I’m aware that it is my only real experience in the field to date (minus two weeks in deepest Wiltshire excavating a Roman villa which I’ve forgotten most of and feels like years ago). But even though I’m aware that the impact that it has had on me so far has been huge, I’m also aware that it is one site of many, and one project of many, that I will hopefully work on – and I have a lot more to learn. And so it will be interesting to see whether my next fieldwork – at the site of Memphis in Egypt for a whole three months (!) – will equate to my experience at Ҫatal. Something tells me it will and it won’t, but whatever my experience will be in Egypt Ҫatalhöyük has set me in good stead to deal with whatever comes my way, both in terms of working as a team and dealing with my own apprehensions. And for that, along with many other reasons, Ҫatalhöyük will always be a special place for me!

Below are a few of the many photo’s we took this year (there were so many to choose from!) – of the Visualisation Team  in action and having fun… Hopefully it will give you an idea of the kind of work we do and just how incredible the site is! (Warning: there will be selfies)

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More team photos posing in front of the mound. Left to right: Tara, Dena, Izzy, me, Sara and Ian. (Photo by Ali.)

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In our spare time after dinner we went for many walks off-site… (Photo by Sara)

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…And saw many beautiful Turkish sunsets.

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The were also a great chance to take many team selfies! (Although we never needed an excuse!)

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We spent a lot of our time looking over existing signage and discussing where we could improve it. (Photo by Ali)

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Me attempting to install signage in the on-site Experimental House. (Photo by Ali)

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We hosted the Great Catalhoyuk Game Jam, hosted by Tara! Some great game ideas were developed, including a Neolithic Tinder game and a Catalhoyuk adventure game with some questionable conclusions… (Photo by Sara)

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This year we had some little additions to the Catalhoyuk Team, Clay Balls (above) and Mr Pickles. They provided much needed stress relief when we needed it!

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The team installing our new signage on our last evening on site. Down to the wire as always! (Photo by Dena)

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Our wonderful Turkish team member Burcu and I removing an existing interpretation panel in the Visitor Centre. (Photo by Dena)

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Installing the new signage! (Photo by Dena)

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Following a crazy, wonderful, often stressful and always enjoyable two weeks on site we flew back to the UK satisfied that we’d achieved way more than we ever expected to!

*blog post about this to follow soon.

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The Mutability of Academic Research: reflections on finishing my undergraduate dissertation.

I know it’s been a while since I last blogged, its almost past the point of being excusable, and I would make up a generic excuse like “I’ve been too busy”, “blogging’s the last of my worries, blah, blah, blah” but, while these may be partly true, I’ve actually missed it and no excuse is good enough. I’m frequently reminded of the benefits of blogging in heritage practice (reflexivity, transparency, connectivity, accessibility etc. etc.) on my Twitter feed thanks to people such as my excellent supervisor Sara Perry, and the equally-as-excellent Colleen Morgan (I might write a post on blogging one day, but maybe don’t hold your breath… In the meantime, have a look at this great blog by the University of York Archaeology first year heritage students – a perfect example of how useful blogging in archaeology can be for reflexivity and collaboration, and one I really enjoyed following. Fantastic work guys!). And every time this happens I find myself nodding in agreement whilst feeling a little guilty and wondering why I don’t blog more damn often. Because the bottom line of it is: it’s great, really useful, and it shouldn’t be as hard to do as I seem to make it!

So, after an inexcusable (and very busy) six months – I’m back! It’s time to dust off ‘The Heritage Sight’ and see if I’m actually any good at writing anything which isn’t going to get scrutinised by academics. So to my previous readers – I’m sorry for the radio silence. And to any new ones – hi, and I hope I don’t bore you too much!

Anyway, I thought today was as good a day as any to get writing again. I’m currently sat in a caravan in Perthshire (not my usual haunt, just an impromptu few days with the family), whilst the rain is pounding on the roof (Summer. Standard.) and I’m rewarding myself with a too-sweet slice of carrot cake that I’m kidding myself into believing I’m actually enjoying, and a cup of Yorkshire tea which doesn’t actually taste like Yorkshire tea (probably something to do with the Scottish water) and all because – I got my dissertation results back! And I don’t know how to feel about it.

I don’t mean I’m disappointed, I’m actually over the moon! I mean I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that over a year’s worth of research is over. Maybe I’m too invested in the topic and maybe that makes me a bit weird, or maybe this is normal? (I can’t imagine how it feels to finish a PhD!) Or maybe this is all part of the mutability of academic writing? That is the ups-and-downs of investing your time, energy and money into studying a topic that you frequently convince yourself no one actually cares about, and that you secretly hate-to-love but actually know is very important. Many of you may already know what I wrote my dissertation on but for those of you who don’t (and if you do actually care) I looked into the short term impacts of UNESCO World Heritage Site status on the Neolithic Site of Ҫatalhöyük in Turkey, a site I was lucky enough to go and work at last summer and where I’ll be returning to in a few weeks for the new field season (stay tuned for more on that).

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Unashamed selfie with my dissertation because, as the saying goes “If you don’t take a picture with your dissertation, did you even write one at all?”

I guess in many ways I was lucky with my dissertation. I had a fantastic supervisor who was passionate about what I was doing and always supportive, I had access to a whole Research Project of world-class archaeologists to interview (who were all amazing!) and I found some really interesting results (more on that later… I know, I’m such a tease). Yet no one warns you about the mutability of it all. The waking up in the early hours worrying that what your writing isn’t good enough, that your method isn’t sound enough, that your results aren’t significant enough, that you will actually fail. And even though rationally you know you’re doing absolutely fine, those doubts still creep their way in. Yet with the lows come the highs. The satisfaction when you finish a chapter, the excitement of discovering an interesting trend, the buzz you feel when discussing said interesting trend (apologies to my housemates here for all the times I talked your ears off – you guys are the best!) and the feeling of elation when it’s finished and printed and you’re actually holding it in your hands, still warm from the printer.

 

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Drafting and editing my dissertation. Possibly my least favorite part of writing. Although the sparkly purple pen made it a lot more bearable.

And so I can get why people get addicted to research, but I can also get why some people run as far in the opposite direction as they possibly can. I think in the archaeology and heritage sector we’re especially lucky, the opportunities (and need) to collaborate with others means that the loneliness and sense of “being lost” which often comes hand-in-hand with academic research is lessened somehow. And for that I’ve been extremely grateful! And it’s mostly gratitude I feel in the end – to all the people who helped me get those 10,998 words down on paper. Yet there’s still something scary about putting all your thoughts and ideas down for someone else to scrutinise, to potentially criticise. And that’s it. Criticism. It’s something we all tell ourselves is healthy (it is!) but secretly nobody really likes it. And I’m sure it’s not just me that feels the need to constantly search for justification and approval –  confirmation that what I’ve done isn’t utter rubbish. But I guess my dissertation marks say otherwise! So for now I’ll stop rambling, make another cup of tea, revel in the fact that I succeeded in my first piece of academic writing and try not to think about the fact that in two weeks I’ll no longer be a student… And finally, leave all those that helped me (again) with a massive THANK YOU!

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I think I’ve used this photo before on here but I love it! Collaborating and working with amazing and talented people is one of the things I love most about archaeology/heritage practice and made my dissertation a lot more interesting/bearable! Featuring the members of the 2015 Visualisation Team from York at Catalhoyuk, minus Ian who’s taking the photograph! (Definitely looks like an album cover for some 80’s rock band!) Left to right: Jenna, Andy, me and Sara.

 

Farewell, Long Meg

Hello folks! I hope the first week of 2016 has treated you well. In truth, mines been quite stressful. My final assessment deadline for the Visual Media in Archaeology module was last Thursday and, let’s just say it was down to the wire. But then, last minute seems to be what I do best! Anyway, I think the essay went well, although there were definite improvements that I could have made… but I’ll guess we’ll see how I’ve done in 6 weeks when I get my results.

Despite all that, it marks the end of the module which makes me a little sad. It was certainly one of my favourite modules I’ve studied at York so far, as I expressed in my last blog post. And with that, it’s time to say goodbye to the ‘mini-project’ also. I hope that I’ve succeeded in giving you a small insight into the wonderful site that is Long Meg and Her Daughters, and even inspired some of you to go and check it out for yourselves. I’ve enjoyed looking more closely at a site which I’ve known for so long, yet never bothered to learn much about. In truth, visualising the site was harder than I thought it would be, and I maybe could have done more. But let’s not dwell on what could have been. In all honesty, the ‘mini-project’ has been invaluable in helping me to understand and apply the theories in archaeological visualisation to a real site. And I hope you lovely readers have also found it interesting – maybe even learnt something new! And so, as we say farewell to Long Meg I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite photo’s of the site…

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Don’t forget you can always visit ‘the mini-project’ under ‘Categories’ if you get withdrawal symptoms, and everything I’ve written about Long Meg can be accessed there. Never fear though, this isn’t the end of my blog; I will continue to post regular updates on projects I’m working on and things I’m interested in. And if you’re interested too then watch this space!

My Year in Archaeology 2015

As the year comes to an end, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what I’ve learnt in archaeology over the course of 2015 and share with you some of the great projects I’ve been involved with. So here’s 5 little things which have made the last year in archaeology my best one yet:

  1. Firstly, in June I finished the second year of my undergraduate degree. That was kind of a sad moment for me. I loved every minute of my second year. I learnt about everything from the development of early medieval towns in Europe with Martin Carver to agricultural production in Medieval Iberia and the archaeology of homelessness. In particular I loved learning about (and you can call me sad here) issues in Conservation and Planning, and learning how to write a Conservation Area Appraisal. I developed so many new skills and interests – all thanks to the amazing Archaeology Department at York!
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I’ve spent so many great times in the Archaeology Department at Kings Manor this year. I love this place!

  1. Once second year ended then, I thought I would have to suffer a dry spell of archaeology (worst nightmare!) before third year started in September. I was lucky enough however, to be given the opportunity to go and work as part of the Visualisation Team at Ҫatalhöyük in Turkey. If you’re interested in what I was getting up to this year, take a look at Chapter 18 of the 2015 Archive Report. (And make sure you keep an eye out for the launch of the new website!) It was such a fantastic experience and one that I’ll never forget. I got to meet some of the leading archaeologists in the world and made some incredible new friends – everyone was so friendly and welcoming. The archaeology too was incredible – it actually blew my mind! For many reasons, Ҫatalhöyük has a special place in my heart now and I hope to return again as part of the Visualisation Team in 2016. It’s definitely given me the bug for travelling!
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Moody skies over the North Shelter at Catalhoyuk.

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The members of the Visualisation Team from York (minus Ian who’s taking the photograph!). Left to right: Jenna, Andy, me and Sara. Photo credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

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Turkish tea! I think I developed an addiction to this whilst I was in Turkey. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to drink lots more of this!

  1. The end of September brought about the start of third year (uh oh!) and the beginning of more exciting things to learn about in archaeology. My Visual Media in Archaeology module, for which this blog was originally set up, has been great and I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to speak to loads of professionals in the heritage sector including the artist Leyla Cardenas and the exhibition designers behind the new Bar Convent exhibition in York. My thanks goes to Colleen Morgan for making it such a brilliant and engaging module!
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Listening to the exhibition designers at the Bar Convent museum. Photo credit: Colleen Morgan

  1. I’ve learnt as well, recently, how useful blogging in archaeology is. I’d read about the benefits of it in Internet Archaeology and other places, and tried my hand at it during my Heritage Practice module all the way back in first year, but it’s only this year that I got round to setting one up of my own . I can actually say that this blog has been great for me. It’s allowed me to be reflexive in my practice and taught me that, not only can I write in a non-academic way, but that I can write about things I’m interested in which don’t have to be part of my degree. I don’t have to dedicate all of my time to my degree and I don’t have to feel guilty about it either. I’ve definitely come to realise over the past couple of months that my life in archaeology is not, and shouldn’t be, all about working towards getting the best first in the whole world. It should be about making my own experiences and researching my own personal interests too. I think I was getting a little lost, and putting too much pressure on myself to achieve the best every single time. I’ve learnt that I don’t have to put that much pressure on; I can sit back and enjoy the ride and I can make mistakes along the way because I’ll probably still do just fine. This blog has been great for helping me realise that.
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I spent a lot of days in the library in 2015… Blogging has taught me that I don’t always have to work on academic stuff!

  1. Finally, the main thing I think I’ve learnt this year is that friendship, communication, and the willingness to help others is the driving force behind archaeology. Yes, the archaeology itself is important – that’s why we’re all here – but without a sense of community the discipline of archaeology would be a lonely place. Maybe I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s only really struck me this year how essential it is in archaeology to feel like you’ve got some support, whether that be from a department, a tutor, archaeologists you work with in the field, or your closest friends. Archaeology can leave you feeling vulnerable and unsure sometimes, and it’s ok to ask people ‘Am I doing this right?’ or ‘What do you think?’ People won’t laugh at you and (I’m going to be sickeningly cheesy here) you have to believe in yourself and trust in your judgement. This year has confirmed to me in many ways that, yes I can do it, I can work well under pressure and I won’t be a complete failure as a heritage practitioner (or whatever I may become). I’ve had a major confidence boost in 2015 and that’s all down to the friendships I’ve made and the feeling that I can achieve what I want – even if it’s a long way off. The archaeological community is great that way!

So there it is, 5 little things I’ve done and learnt in archaeology in 2015. Although this year has been stressful in parts, it’s been out-of-this-world in others, and I’m sad in a way that this year is over. 2016 however, is set to be even better what with graduation, exciting new projects, (hopefully) starting a masters and (finger crossed!) more trips abroad to see amazing sites. I’m also aiming to do a bit more excavating this year and build up my (seriously lacking) skills in that! And so, as I continue on towards the end of my undergraduate degree I just have to say how unbelievably grateful I am for the continued support from the Archaeology Department at York, my tutor Sara Perry, and all my amazing family and friends (many of whom have no clue what I do!) – I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to share my year with. Here’s to a fantastic year of archaeology!

Happy New Year everyone, I hope you all have an incredible 2016!

Neolithic people were vandals too…

As I briefly mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been on holiday! I went to Warsaw in Poland last week, just for a bit of a break, to see the Christmas market, go ice-skating, drink stupid amounts of mulled wine, eat my body weight in food everyday – just the usual things you tend to do at this time of year. Warsaw was lovely, especially the Old Town, however I couldn’t help but notice the amount of graffiti around the city. Everywhere. It was inescapable. And, of course, having recently studied the impact of graffiti in heritage issues and contemporary archaeology, it got me thinking about the relevance of graffiti in personal (and communal) expression and identity. (This inevitably made me feel guilty for not sharing what I’d been learning with you guys sooner but, you know, I had sights to see and waffles to eat so I soon got over that…)

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I sadly (perhaps stupidly!) didn’t take any photo’s of the graffiti in Warsaw, but it was everywhere – even here in the Old Town!

Graffiti is often considered as anti-social vandalism, and largely remains studied by criminologists and sociologists. It is widely viewed as ugly, garish and damaging. Yet, if you get over the cultural stigma surrounding graffiti then it can tell you interesting things about the place you live – it can be used for political expression and social collaboration. Above all, it allows for artistic expression and gives often marginalised people a chance to engage in a kind of discursive practice which goes unnoticed by most people every day. In my opinion, if it is used for beneficial means then the power and expression elicited by graffiti should be respected and to an extent encouraged.

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An example of graffiti in Warsaw. Photo by ROA ! on Flickr

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A ‘Wandjina’ type stencil re inscribed with the word ‘stolen’. Photo by Ursula Frederick who studies the influence of looking at graffiti on understanding rock art and heritage issues in Australia.

So how does this help us in archaeology? Well if, as suggested by Ursula Frederick (2009, 212), you define graffiti as a “complex mark-making phenomenon” then studying graffiti has the potential to tell us about mark-making practices in the past. It may be possible shed light on the reasons behind mark-making, such as why prehistoric peoples made cup and ring marks? Was it part of a cultural tradition? Was it a way of saying ‘We were here!’? Or was it supernatural – linked to star constellations, or the movement of the moon? Questions like this bring me back to my ‘mini-project’ and Long Meg…

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Long Meg features ‘cup and ring’ marks, frequently found across northern England.

Long Meg is special in that she features Neolithic rock art, something which is found widely across Britain, northern England in particular (read more about this here). I’m going to be honest and tell you that I don’t actually know a lot about rock art, or ring and cup marks, or anything much about the theories on why prehistoric people chose to paint and carve things into cave walls and megaliths. I can still speculate though, and I hope you as readers don’t mind me doing so. Like modern graffiti, rock art across Britain has recurring motifs or styles. Whether there is a link between these styles, or what this might be if there is one, can be questioned. Like graffiti again they are often found on ‘public’, outfacing areas – on stone circles like at Long Meg, and cairns. They are public – but does this then mean that they aren’t secret? How do we know that the Neolithic people who made these marks weren’t also involved in a kind of secret discursive practice? How do we know that it wasn’t only a few members of Neolithic society which used these marks as a visual criticism on the politics of their contemporary society? What on earth could cup and rings be a criticism about I hear you ask… Well, I can’t answer that but I welcome any suggestions(!) Perhaps they were also viewed as destructive and ugly – damn those anti-social Neolithic people and their vandalistic ways!

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Photo by DavidRBadger 2015 (Flickr)

Maybe, just maybe, they had no meaning at all, and it was just a way of passing time – a simple artistic practice passed on from one to another. Ursula Frederick (mentioned above) writes about the potential use of rock art research in looking at contemporary graffiti. She questions:

“How do we determine which marks made in the past were ‘legitimately’ produced and which ones effectively went ‘against the grain’ of accepted convention?” (2009, 229)

How indeed. The frequency of cup and ring marks across northern England would suggest that the ones on Long Meg didn’t go ‘against the grain’. So can we call them Neolithic graffiti? I say yes – it may have been an accepted practice, unlike graffiti today, but it has significant similarities with graffiti. It has a purpose, it has a visual presence which probably had a contemporary meaning, and it must have connected people together in a visual discourse which is, sadly, as inaccessible to us today as much of the discourse behind the graffiti in our towns and cities.

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‘Cup and ring’ mark on the monolith ‘Long Meg’

Above all that, the rock art at Long Meg is simplistically beautiful, and like some graffiti, should be respected and not overlooked. I urge you to visit it if you get the chance. Let me know in the comments your thoughts on rock art/graffiti and also if I’ve made any sense with this post at all! It is a fascinating subject and one which I will endeavour to learn more about.

If you would like to read more, take a look at this lovely brochure by The Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Pilot Project on the ADS. There are more links to information on rock art in the brochure, as well as a link to The British Rock Art Blog. Check it out!

Frederick, U.K. (2009) “Revolution Is the New Black: Graffiti/Art and Mark-Making Practices.” Archaeologies 5 (2). Springer US: 210–37.

Ice cream and bare feet on tarmac – a personal reflection on the loss of heritage during the Cumbria Floods 2015

Firstly, I want to apologise for my lack of blogging over the past couple of weeks. It’s been a hectic time, what with dissertation writing, end-of-term festivities and a Christmas trip to Poland! But recent events have caused me to reflect on a few things… and so today seems like a perfect time as any to update you all on my thoughts. You’re probably aware of the recent events that I speak of – the Cumbria Floods caused by the ridiculous amount of rain brought in by Storm Desmond last week. It’s truly tragic. And as a Cumbrian living away from home I found it really difficult to watch the news and see all the places I know and love be destroyed by the flood waters and not be able to do anything about it. Luckily for me, my family have been unharmed, but I know many people who have been affected and it breaks my heart to see their homes and businesses destroyed so close to Christmas.

As tragic as it is however, people have started to rebuild their lives and replace things that they have lost – that’s all you can do in such an awful situation. But one thing that really affected me – and I was surprised by this – was the loss of the irreplaceable. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, it’s in my nature, as a heritage practitioner and archaeologist, to fear and mourn the loss of the irreplaceable. Yet I was still shocked, and it’s subsequently caused me to reflect on the power of heritage and heritage places in our lives. This is something that’s widely recognised at local and national levels, you only have to read The Heritage Alliance’s manifesto, The National Trust’s ‘Spirit of Place’, or Historic England’s Conservation Principles and Guidelines to understand how significant a place can be. But sometimes things happen which make you realise that power all over again.

For me this was the loss of the 18th C bridge at Pooley Bridge which was washed away by the sheer volume of water underneath it last week. Pooley Bridge is a small village on the northern shores of Lake Ullswater, a few miles to the south of my village. It’s a small place, with a few pubs, a convenience store, a couple of gift shops, and an ice cream shop. Yet it’s very popular with visitors, being on the tourist route around Ullswater. I never really had any affinity with, or fondness for Pooley Bridge, other than that we used to visit it often in summer when I was a child when we would go down to the lake.

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The 18th century bridge at Pooley Bridge as it used to be before it was destroyed by the floods of December 2015. Photo by John Clift 2011

We used to park in the car park by the bridge and walk over it into the village to get ice cream from the little ice cream shop. We would wander down the side of the bridge and sit in its shadow, feeding the ducks and paddling in the river. I remember walking back across it in bare feet, feeling the burning hot tarmac under my feet and diving into the passing places every time a car went over it. It’s strange, but it was such an icon of that tiny village and I have so many memories tied to it that I feel, despite its communal heritage values, it’s a personal loss for me as well as for the wider community. Perhaps I’m just being over sentimental – but heritage can do that to you can’t it?

I’m not really sure where I’ve gone, or am going, with this blog post other than to say that I’m sad that a part of our heritage is lost and I wanted to reflect on that. But in truth, I’ll get over it in time, as we all will. And soon Pooley Bridge will have a new one, and that will become a part of its new heritage, and countless more children will walk bare feet over its tarmac whilst licking ice-cream off their fingers…

Witches and Wizards

Just a quick one today… I thought it was about time I actually told you lovely readers about the folklore of Long Meg and Her Daughters and why the site has the name it does. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long, I’ve been getting carried away with archaeological debates and theories in visualisation, when really stories about witches and wizards are so much cooler right?!

I won’t start with ‘Once Upon A Time’ – that always implies a happy ending and, if you believe this story, it’s not really a happy ending. The legend goes that Long Meg was a witch who was practicing a Pagan worship with her daughters when she was found by a Scottish wizard (some accounts insist that he was a saint) named Michael Scott, who then turned them to stone. Not so happy then, I personally wouldn’t want to be turned to stone for centuries. There may be hope for them yet though; the legend says that if the stones were to be counted twice the spell would be broken and Long Meg and her daughters would be released from their stony slumber. It’s a common legend associated with stone circles, and it is integral to the identity of the site as a heritage place. If anything else, it gives the stones a certain agency and an identity of their own which exudes an ‘other-worldliness’ and a sense of longevity. The contribution of folktales to our sense of heritage and history is therefore of an importance which shouldn’t be undermined.

Folklore and archaeology are an interesting mix. They have a kind of love-hate relationship. Folklore and legends are often the first thing that gets people hooked on the past which has the potential to lead them into studying archaeology. Take the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, for example, which are loved so much by so many people. Yet archaeology tries to disprove these legends, claiming that there’s always a more logical reason for that circular ditch over there (“no way is it the Round Table!”) or that sword found in that lake (“its Bronze Age actually so, ya know, it can’t be Excalibur”). I’m an archaeologist, a fact which is now inescapable, so of course I believe that there’s always a more logical reason for sites and features to be there. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t value legends and find them intriguing, or believe that there isn’t a grain of truth in them. They often offer a form of escapism, a way of living in a fantasy, and if that gets people interested in the past then where’s the harm in that??

#nofilter: the blessings (and sins) of social media in archaeology

Today I thought I would write a little something on a favourite topic of mine: Instagram. I’m not going to be one of those people who pretends that they’re not addicted to social media; I’m flicking through my phone just as frequently as everyone else. That social media had become an integral part of my daily life is inescapable, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Indeed, that it has become an integral part of our modern day culture is as equally inescapable, and for that reason heritage practitioners and archaeologists are increasingly turning to social media as a way of disseminating knowledge and current research about the past. This often makes it more accessible to members of the public than the research published in traditional journals and archaeological reports. Facebook pages for research projects and archaeological organisations have thousands of likes, and individual groups can be made in order to share and debate specific research interests in archaeology. The online community in archaeology and heritage is vast and easily accessible. So social media does have its advantages, and perhaps I shouldn’t feel as bad about using it as often as I do if the knowledge that I’m gaining and sharing is valuable (we won’t mention the Disney quizzes that I find myself compulsively doing at unearthly hours).

One social media platform that I find myself hooked on especially is Instagram. There’s something about sharing a small snapshot of my life, whether that be a particularly delicious lunch I had at that new café or the view from that mountain I just climbed, which makes me feel happy and almost blessed. I can’t explain it but I’m sure many of you understand. It’s like showing your family and friends your holiday pics after you’ve picked the developed photos up at Boots a week later. It’s like a personal documentation of your life which you can reflect on later, instilling those feelings of nostalgia we all love to feel. But honestly, why do we really do it? Who really cares what you had for lunch? And crucially, why do we need to put a filter on every photo? God forbid somebody puts a photo up without a filter. And if you do then it must be declared… #nofilter! Shocker that the world can look beautiful without a filter. There’s no doubt though that the filters do make a photo look ‘pretty’. But if we remember that stylistic choices imbue meanings into an image, then it’s not quite as simple as just being ‘pretty’.

This poses both a blessing and a sin in terms of archaeological photography. Apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic are a blessing in that they provide a fast, easy way to share archaeological experiences in the field, and allow projects to update the public on their work almost instantly. The filters applied to these photographs also make them difficult to cite and republish as they obscure the archaeological site and degrade the file size of the photograph. On the other hand, once they are published online, they are not easy to control and can be used by others in contexts not initially intended for the photographs. The obscuration of the site also brings into question the truthfulness of the reproduction and can distort the reality of the place to someone who hasn’t visited the site, hence impacting their experience of the site.

Let’s demonstrate and explore this a little and get back to visualising Long Meg. I took some of the photographs from last weekend and did what I do best: I Instagrammed them (‘Instagrammed’ should definitely be a verb don’t you think?). Here’s a selection:

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Katrina Gargett 2015

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Katrina Gargett 2015

Both black and white and sepia filters create a significant meaning in terms of our perception of time. It suggests that the photo is archaic, a snapshot of the site from a time when photographic technology wasn’t as developed as it is today. And in that sense it suggests an association of the site with a time when man-kind wasn’t as advanced, both from the archaic filter and the depiction of a Neolithic site. It is both a comment on the advancement and superiority of modern day society over past societies, and a manifestation of the wish to ‘return to a simpler time’ when mankind wasn’t so advanced. It presents a contradiction. Black and white in particular is powerful in its stylistic representation – as well as being visually striking it simplifies the image and forces you to focus on other things, such as shape and detail, which may have been obscured or distracted from by colour. Does this simplification then also suggest a simplification of the subject matter? Does a black and white image of Long Meg suggest that her history is as black and white? Perhaps it is an attempt at making sense of the mystery behind why she was built. (Am I getting a little too abstract here?!).

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Katrina Gargett 2015.

Colour filters also convey meanings. Making a photo of the site a little more ‘blue’ potentially highlights the ‘coldness’ of the stones. It doesn’t look cosy at least. What does this then suggest about life in the past? Was everything a little bit colder and harder?

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Katrina Gargett 2015

Retro style filters in particular are popular and, like the black and white filters, suggest a certain nostalgia. These filters in particular highlight the interplay between analogue and digital photography, and illustrate the current fashion for analogue aesthetics within digital photography.

Perhaps the use of social media such as Instagram does indicate the “loss of the real” in photography and the credibility of the photograph as a useful archaeological document. Should they therefore be separated – a clear line drawn between photography used for the archaeological record and photography used for personal documentation of an experience? The debate over this is particularly prevalent in this day and age, especially now we have moved into the post-photographic era where the digital manipulation of photographs is almost too easy. I would suggest that, in order to maintain some verisimilitude then perhaps yes, they should be separated. However, you cannot undermine the necessity and usefulness of social media in promoting the work of archaeologists and helping us to connect with the non-archaeological community – Instagram is a fantastic platform for this and acts as the perfect place for a personal and public presentation of heritage topics and values. They should, in my opinion, be more highly considered in the field of heritage practice as a place of social communication and interaction on heritage matters, and a way to engage a wider, more diverse audience.

 

If you’re interested on the prevalence of social media in heritage practice why not have a little read of the articles which influenced this post:

Morgan, C. 2015. The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography. Computer Applications in Archaeology Proceedings.

Giaccardi, E. 2012. Introduction: Reframing heritage in a participatory culture. In Heritage and Social Media, Eds Elisa Giaccardi. Routledge. Pp: 1-10.

 

Photographing the Druids Circle

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A cold, windy and wet day at Long Meg. Photo by Katrina Gargett, 2015

Hello folks! Sorry for my silence over the past week, I’ve been working on a few things – not just my uni work but other exciting things! But that can wait for another day… Let’s get back to my current mini-project – visualising the slightly neglected site of Long Meg and Her Daughters.

So this weekend, in order to fully engage with this project, I decided it was about time that I paid Long Meg another long-awaited visit. So Friday night, I packed my bag, bought my train tickets, squeezed myself onto the packed 18.06 train from Leeds to Carlisle and returned to my cold Northern homeland. Unfortunately, I managed to pick one of the worst weekends weather-wise to return home and the county was hit by gale force winds, torrential rain and flooding in the midst of storm Barney. But – it is the Lake District so I wouldn’t expect anything less. Once over I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it to the site safely, but I am a hardy Cumbrian lass and I wasn’t going to let a bit of rain stop me.

Sunday afternoon then, my Dad and I took the short journey so I could reacquaint myself with the site and take some photographs. That was my primary aim which, happily, I achieved. However, due to the light conditions and the weather, the photographs didn’t turn out all that well and so I came away a little disappointed. Or did they? Did I really have a reason to be disappointed? Why does it matter that they weren’t as aesthetically pleasing as I hoped they would be? What is it about visualising the past that means we like to colour it and filter it? (Filtering is a whole other discussion, perhaps best left for another post because *raises hand* I’m one of the guilty ones).

These were the kinds of questions that I found myself asking whilst I was battling through the wind, trying to take photographs with my ice cold hands. The photographs I took are so highly subjective; they tell of my experience with the site on that day, taken from my perspective. It is generally acknowledged in the discipline of visualisation in archaeology, that all photography is subjective (if you’re interested in reading more on this start with the fascinating paper below by Michael Shanks).  Whereas it was once deemed scientific in it’s mechanical, electronic and chemical means of reproduction, it is now recognised as anything but. From the technological restrictions and physicality of the camera, limiting the photographers representational powers, to the  “artificiality and culturally bounded nature” of the photographers gaze, nothing can be completely objective (Moser and Smiles 2005, 3).  Like everything in visualisation, it all comes down to personal experience, self-context, skill and available technology informing the choices of representation. I therefore found myself seriously questioning what I was doing at the time. Would my IPhone be a good enough camera to do the site justice? Why am I so bothered about taking photographs of this site in the first place? What was it about my life values and concerns which brought me here? What do I really want to show and why? And perhaps most importantly, why do I feel that photography is the best way of showing Long Meg to someone who has never been there?

It’s funny isn’t it -that the concern with portraying sites to their absolute best potentially means we can miss out on representing the real experience of a site. Long Meg is quite a challenging site to capture as, being so large, it is difficult to get the whole circle in one photograph without using a panning shot (like the one above). Therefore, how I chose to frame every photo matters in that it creates meaning through selective representation. As stated by Smiles and Moser: “Formal and stylistic observations act as filters of meaning…” Photography is a very powerful tool for manipulating viewer’s perceptions.

In the photograph below, I chose to frame Long Meg to the right of the picture, looking over the rest of the stones in order to show the relationship and distance between her and the rest of the circle. What does it tell us archaeologically? Not a lot really. You can’t tell the topography of the land all that clearly. You can’t tell the distance between the stones accurately. You can’t even see the situation of Long Meg in the wider landscape – were there processional routes? Was it near a river? Or a settlement? – In this sense, the photo is slightly futile.

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Photo by Katrina Gargett 2015

What you can see though, is an experience. You can see where I trekked through the long grass from Long Meg to the take the photo at that standpoint which I deemed important – my own processional route in a way. And you can see storm clouds, you can imagine the cold and the wind. You can see the Pennines behind, drowning in said storm clouds. You can see how I got to the site, with the slightly out-of-place car hidden in the background.

So, even though it’s not the best photo of the site, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a snapshot in time. A static representation of my experience on that day, which I’m sharing with you because it’s a site I care about and I want to tell you its story through my eyes. And without a photograph of the site, how could you possibly begin to visualise that story?

This leads me to conclude that: Photography is such a necessity as a means of recording and visualisation in archaeology that, to question why and how we do it is a necessity in itself.

Shanks, M. 1997. Photography and archaeology. In The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology. Molyneaux , B L (eds) London: Routledge. 73-107.

Smiles, S. & Moser, S. (eds). 2005. Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image. Malden: Blackwell, 1-11.

Speak Giant-mother!

Some thoughts for a Sunday:

The monument commonly called Long Meg

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
At whose behest uprose on British ground
That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round
Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

William Wordsworth, 1822

It’s not exactly ‘visualisation’ but isn’t it lovely. It is by the notable William Wordsworth (I’m sure you’ve all heard of him!) and it speaks of Long Meg herself looking over her ‘family forlorn’. Wordsworth describes his ‘weight of Awe’ and expresses his trouble at ‘the unknown past’ (something many archaeologists may sympathise with). He tells the story of Long Meg and how she came to be turned to stone: “The inviolable God that tames the proud.” He describes the elemental nature of the site in a way only a Romantic poet could: “…whose massy strength and stature scorn.” The poem is more than just a phenomenological account or a descriptive narrative.

Anyone who’s been to the Lake District knows that Wordsworth is a key figure in the history of the area. The associative heritage values which are forcefully inflicted upon every place which Wordsworth visited, or touched, or was possibly seen, make up a huge part of the Lake District’s overall heritage. Just the fact that he wrote a poem about Long Meg tells of the significance of the site to the poet, and this, through association alone, raises the profile of the site to the level of the wider heritage of the Lake District. On a smaller level, it also tells of a singular past perception of the site – that of Wordsworth’s himself. It is a significant addition to the layers of meaning entwined within the stones and provides us with a link to the temporal existence of the place – a moment in 1882 when Wordsworth trudged around the stones as we do today. It is a powerful document of this encounter.

Let’s briefly acknowledge the power of poetry and its potential in archaeological discourse. Recently in class we’ve been thinking about text in museum displays which has led me to start thinking about how we describe and inform visitors about what they’re looking at. Perhaps poetry is underrated as a means of narrative.

Surely, in its own semi-ambiguous way, poetry can encourage deeper thought – and therefore deeper engagement with the subject matter in hand? This comes back to the question of intended meanings and personal self-contextual interpretations. I could get dragged into the ‘Death of the Author’ theory here (I frequently get jolted back to my brief stint in History of Art and sitting in a stuffy seminar room learning about Barthes whilst drinking coffee which I inevitably let go cold) – but let’s keep this simple. Whatever meanings Wordsworth wanted to convey about Long Meg and Her Daughters, we as modern day readers read his words in our own ways, and we probably don’t read it as he would have wished. However we’re ‘supposed’ to read it though, it still remains subjective and we bring our own baggage to the interpretation table.

I want to suggest that poetry is more powerful in helping us to engage with sites and objects on a deeper, more meaningful level. Even the style of language elicits more work from the reader to decipher what Wordsworth is describing and what story he is telling us.  So should it be used more as a creative way of describing sites and collections in museums – in order to make the viewer work harder for their sought-after archaeological knowledge. and hence provoke a deeper level of engagement? Or shall we stick to the simple less-than-75-word plaques which get the job done and tell the visitor what the curators want them to know about the objects in from of them?

No doubt somewhere, at some time, poetry has been used in a museum as a narrative medium and this isn’t a novel idea at all. I congratulate any curator(s) who have used it – I just hope it gets used more often, especially at the premise of the ‘post-museum.’

Despite all that, it’s just a lovely poem about a lovely site!