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.

 

draftin

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.

 

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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…

IMG_2554[1]IMG_2552[1]IMG_2168[1]IMG_2149IMG_20140924_235010

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!

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!

Art and Archaeology: a love affair?

I will admit that I’ve struggled with this blog post. It’s not the actual writing which bothers me, or the thought of people clearly more educated in the vast world of archaeological visualisation reading my humble thoughts (this is a place as much for me to explore my ideas on how we visualise archaeology as it is for you lovely readers to be entertained). It’s simply that over the past six weeks of immersing myself in the huge array of literature on visual media in archaeology I find myself somewhat overwhelmed. From the (un-)surprising relationship between art and archaeology, to the verisimilitude of representations in film and television, to the increasingly didactic nature of museum displays since the eighteenth century – I find myself emerged in a new (for me at least) way of looking at representations of the past, which makes me question even the most basic form of media in archaeology. And so I find myself wondering, how I can even begin to apply the various theories and ideas to the site I so enthusiastically introduced last week? And for that reason, I’ve been putting it off – it’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that I have too much to say!

Let’s take baby steps then. I’ll begin with the artistic representation of Long Meg and Her Daughters (perhaps not baby steps?!). I realise that the use of art in archaeology is a contested subject (isn’t everything in visualisation?!) and there clearly isn’t room in this blog post to go into too much depth on the debate surrounding the artistic representation of the past. I’ll stick then with one painting to analyse. Indeed, there are very few painting of Long Meg available online, and I hope there are many more out there which people have painted over the years – whether proudly sat on a living room wall or gathering dust in the corner of someone’s attic!

The piece I am going to focus on is by the artist Sam Douglas:

© Sam Douglas 2014 Long Meg and her daughters 30x20cm Oil on board

© Sam Douglas 2014
Long Meg and her daughters
30x20cm
Oil on board

It is an oil-on-board piece simply titled ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’. It has an element of photorealism, painted from a single perspective with Long Meg in the foreground and her daughters gathered in the distance. The tree demands a large amount of attention being centrally located within the painting. However, it doesn’t tell me a lot else about the site. So what is it about? How can it be useful to us as archaeologists?

Perhaps like this:

Douglas’ paintings have been described as “much more to do with how he ‘feels’ about the natural environment and the emotional responses it stimulates than the physical topography that initially lies before him” (www.contemporarybritishpainting.com). The key terms here are “feels” and “emotional response”. How this is evident in the picture is ambiguous, but a simple critical reading of the painting -looking at form, colour, tone, lighting etc.- suggest to me a brooding, secretive, almost mysterious feeling. Is it almost suggestive, given the subject matter, of our frustrations with trying to understanding the past. Indeed, if I was to fully understand this piece I would have to get in touch with Douglas himself and ask about his life; his background, his education, his beliefs, hopes, desires. Why has he painted it in this way? Is it supposed to be photo realistic? Or abstract? What meanings does he want to convey about the site? What was his experience of the site? I could go on…

I have to acknowledge here that Douglas is an artist, not an archaeological illustrator. As far as I am aware the painting is not intended for an archaeological audience. Yet current thinking encourages the crossing of disciplines in order to fully engage with archaeological practice and the process of interpretation. This is emphasised by Colin Renfrew when discussing Richard Long’s ephemeral open-air sculptures and how this has impacted his view on the agency of Neolithic burial chambers in Orkney. As he states “All experience is subjective (2003, 42), whether in the past or the present. Looking at paintings like this then, is useful to archaeologists in that it highlights the necessity of the subjective approach to experiencing our material past. Perhaps Douglas’ slightly murky effect not only tells of his experience with the site, but also of the experience a visitor can expect when they go to the site.

Personally, I like Douglas’ style, and the question of whether it is accurate or archaeologically meaningful is irrelevant to me to an extent. It is very much about personal experience, which is something the discipline of art can teach to the discipline of archaeology; step away from the obsession with objectivity and embrace the human senses. Embrace how they form your experience and explorations of the past. Above all, embrace how they make you feel within yourself.

Perhaps the benefits which arise from the relationship between art and archaeology should not be underestimated. Together they form a powerful and influential couple – maybe they’re a match made in heaven?! Who knows.

Renfrew, C (2003) Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists London: Thames and Hudson, 26-49.

The Beginning

The first post. Always a nerve-wracking moment. I always feel like there’s a lot riding on it. Maybe that’s why I’ve put off setting up an archaeology blog for a while. But happily, here I am, ready to share my work and musings on heritage visualisation with the big wide world which exists outside of my little archaeology bubble. So welcome to my blog!

Let me introduce myself…  My name is Katrina and in some ways I’m just another archaeology and heritage student, a third year undergraduate studying at the University of York, often preaching to all who know me how amazing heritage is and how much I love what I study. In others, I’m a unique heritage and archaeology student – I know, that’s quite a statement to make! –but aren’t we all? We all have our own unique interests and passions, our own individual backgrounds, our own heritage. So I’m unique just as you are, and heritage and archaeology just happen to be one of my passions, along with Yorkshire Tea and country music. Unfortunately, I can’t sing, so some years ago I chose to pursue my love of archaeology and here I am. I’m lucky that I have a whole career ahead of me doing what I love, and this blog exists so I can take you along for the ride.

Truthfully, this blog also has an ulterior motive. As part of my third year Visual Media in Archaeology module this is going to act as a place for me to explore my ever increasing knowledge on archaeological visualisation and heritage practice. I will start off with a mini-project of my own where I will do all this exploring I speak of. My mini-project will focus on a site close to my heart, near where I grew up in Cumbria – a Neolithic stone circle known as Long Meg and Her Daughters. Through creating my own representations of the site using different forms of media, and critically reviewing visual representations which have been produced before – from antiquarians and poets to amateur filmmakers – I hope to bring greater attention to this special site. I also hope I can bridge the gap between archaeological theory and practice by applying the debates and issues in heritage visualisation to the site, in an attempt to explore and make these issues clearer.

I’m painfully aware that I’m new to this, and I’m still only taking my first tentative steps into heritage practice. Hopefully this blog will allow me to be more critical of my work and operate as a platform for reflection, as well as keeping you updated with my adventures. If you’ve made it this far then I applauded you – stick around and I will hopefully give you a small insight into the world of heritage visualisation!