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!

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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…