Archaeodeath on Annual Leave

IMG_20150618_095035This is my first attempt at writing for the Day of Archaeology and it will be a very personal response.

About Me: Being Prof. Archaeodeath

I am Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester, UK and I love my job. I research the archaeology of death and burial, archaeologies of remembrance and commemoration, the Middle Ages as well as sometimes modern and contemporary archaeologies, public archaeology and the history of archaeology.

I do a lot of desk-based/library-based research as well as independent fieldwork and small-scale survey and excavation projects. I’m also Honorary Editor of the Royal Archaeological Institute’s Archaeological Journal which is a big job in itself. You can read about me here.

As Professor of Archaeology, I don’t just research. I am an HE academic who spends a lot of time teaching undergraduate students the history and theory of archaeology, medieval archaeology (including Anglo-Saxon and Viking archaeology), mortuary archaeology and the like. I am also programme leader for, and teach on, our Masters degrees in archaeology and heritage (MA Archaeology of Death and Memory; MA Archaeology and Heritage Practice; MRes Archaeology). Finally, I supervise a range of postgraduate research students. Oh yes, and I also write a blog: Archaeodeath. I have quite a few ongoing research projects, very few of which I cover here.

My Day of Annual Leave

Well, I was enjoying a day of well-earned annual leave today. Yes, even academics get to sometimes have days off! So you would think that means I have nothing to tell you about my profession? You might think that, but think again! By telling you what I did on a day off, you will gain an insight into the complex blurring of personal and professional life of a university academic and also gain a sense of some lessons in how much academic archaeologists spend dedicating hard work to projects that take a very long time to reach fruition.

Ok, so my day of annual leave began by being awoke by my twin girls (aged 2 and a half) at 4.30 am and whilst awake and they had gone back to sleep, I thought I might as well do something, so I did work from 4.30 to 5.30am when I went back to bed for an hour. After the morning routine, I went to a nearby park to take kids to swings and slides and pester ducks, then I took one kid to a birthday party and then entertain the rest of the kids at another park. That was just the morning, I then spent the afternoon watching ‘Monsters University’ and then took the kids to yet another park. Ah, the lovely warm Welsh rain!

Everyone had a great day as did I. Relaxing? Not very. Exhausting. A bit. Fun, on the whole yes.

My Day of Work

However, a professors work never stops! In between the official annual leave, between 4.30am to 11pm, I had to find some time to do pressing archaeology work relating to my students and projects from home via phone, email and the glorious world wide web as follows:

  1. I dealt with a major administrative screw-up via email affecting one of my postgraduate students at a time when many of my university colleagues aren’t available to answer emails. I thus saved a student and the student’s family a massive pile of mental torture and stress. Lesson: prioritising students and supporting them can regularly involves academic archaeologists going far beyond the call of duty and during their annual leave. This was an issue that couldn’t wait.
  2. I am co-editing a very important collection on archaeologies of cremation in past and present societies with contributions from across Europe and North America. I am doing this with two superb fellow archaeologists:, one in the US, one in Finland – Jessica Cerezo-Roman (Harvard) and Anna Wessman (Helsinki). Today, we had sad news. We found out and responded to the news that the project has been declined by our publisher at the final hurdle, having passed successfully through, and been revised significantly in response to, two stages of peer-review. They have their reasons, but we still think we have a cracking project and we are now looking for a new academic publisher who knows a good project when they see it and won’t waste our time. The sooner we do this the better, hence I’m dealing with it during my annual leave. Lesson: don’t count your books until they’ve hatched and anticipate being messed about by publishers, authors, and almost every human and material agent during the academic publication process!
  3. I have spent the last few years editing another really exciting new book, this one on early medieval stone monuments, exploring new perspectives and directions in the study of carved and inscribed stones of the 5th to 11th centuries AD (including ‘Early Christian’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Viking’ monuments). Today, I spent several hours reading through the final proofs of the book. You can pre-order it here. Frustratingly, the deadline for revisions of only 4 days away and the proofs need wrapping up pronto. Unhelpfully, it seems I’m alone in the task and have to complete it during my annual leave to ensure the book isn’t delayed. Lesson: think very carefully before you embark on an edited book (or any archaeological project come to that) and consider just how much extra work it will involve than you imagine. Then treble this time to identify a realistic workload for the task. Then treble it again to account for the possibility that the collaboration might take up more time than had you done it all on your own. Then consider whether you might be better off doing it on your own and then seriously entertain doing it on your own or not at all. Archaeologists who haven’t edited don’t have no clue how much work is involved!
  4. I wrote a blog post about the popular History Channel show ‘Vikings’, reflecting on aspects of the show’s portrayal of death, burial and commemoration in the Viking Age. I am really passionate about exploring the intersections between my subject and its popular consumption. I teaching the Vikings and I study them. So I am happy to spend an hour of my evening during my annual leave writing a blog about it because it is fun. I’m not sure how many people care to read what I write, but that’s not really the point, it is important as a way of thinking through my own research questions and communicating ideas to my students and wider audiences. Read it here.
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    Encountered the cremated dead today

    While out in the park with the kids (as mentioned above), I did actually see some material traces that pertain to my research. As well as exploring cremation practices in the later prehistory and early historic periods, I’m also fascinated by the memorials to the cremated dead in our landscape today. In one Welsh park I visited, around the biggest tree, I encountered a lovely spread of fresh ‘cremains’ or ‘ashes’: the cremulated (crushed) ashes retrieved from a modern crematorium. Every example I encounter I document since I am writing articles on the choices for location made by modern-day people for ash-scattering. This has implications for understanding death and society today and in the human past. Lesson: archaeologists find data everywhere!

I won’t claim this is a typical day, or an exceptional one. It is a classic example of the complex interplay between teaching, research and administration that infects annual leave in academia. Being an academic archaeologist involves a lot of fun and interesting work, a lot of hard work, a lot of pitfalls and having your time wasted for you by a lot of unreliable people within and outside the profession.

Being a specialist in death and society means that even a trip to the park during annual leave can bring me face-to-face with my research! The archaeology of death is engaging and fascinating because it is about both past and the present and about everything from ancient tombs and skeletons to memorial benches and ashes. Good mortuary archaeology is where you find it!