Cambridge

Through a Glass Darkly?

pompAs the curator of a small museum, I’m on the front-line of the interface between objects and people. The Museum of Classical Archaeology is a university collection based in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. Although we have a fine collection of sherds and epigraphic squeezes, the stars of the show in our gallery are the 450 plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture on display. Our objects, then, weren’t dug up in a far-off field or found in a rescue trench – no, most were made especially for us and our collection. Still, they’re far from just fakes or poor shadows of their originals. Rather, they are historical objects in their own right: the oldest are well over 250 years old and began their lives in the private houses of wealthy aristocrats. Casts were used for the dissemination of new discoveries long before lavishly illustrated books, dig reports and press releases became the norm. So, while our objects are not original, their histories are tangled up in centuries of archaeological and art historical research and teaching.

I spend the morning dealing with emails and social media, making posters and producing some new display boards for a temporary exhibition – all while sitting on the front desk, so at the same time I’m engaging with visitors and dealing with questions. We recently took some objects out of the museum to a local cinema for the British Museum’s Pompeii Live event, where over 80 people got their hands on our objects at the cinema (don’t worry, we made them wear gloves!). Now, we’ve put them together in a temporary Pompeii-inspired display called Pompeiana. The stand-out piece is a bit of painted Pompeian masonry, which was too delicate to take to the cinema. Ultimately, the display will snake backwards around the gallery, picking out pieces of sculpture which were originally displayed in private Roman houses and gardens – but only when I’ve finished writing the content…

Today, I put together a rather lovely piece on the relationship between our two casts of Dancing Girls from the Villa and their original doppelgangers – it’s important that we engage directly with the rather unusual nature of our collection as casts and copies, rather than try to brush it under the carpet. Every cast tells two stories – one ancient, one modern. One of those stories, it turns out, is hiding in the storeroom. I discover we have a (cast of a) head of Dionysos from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum languishing on a bottom shelf; actually, he turns out to be even more unusual because he’s made not out of plaster of Paris but of bronze. How unexpected! He’s beautiful, but heavy. I begin to make a cunning plan to liberate him and install him on the shop-floor.

P1000603At lunchtime, the Museum’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, Jennie Thornber, opens up a bulging envelope full of letters written by a group of children, thanking her for letting them handle some real Roman objects. We’ve both only been in post for less than four months, so reading these is a real joy. One child has drawn a version of a Hellenistic sculpture of a baby squashing a duck: the duck says, ‘Don’t squash me!’. We love it!

As the afternoon starts, visitors begin to arrive asking about the Curator’s Tour. We don’t really know what to expect; we’ve advertised this tour as part of the family programming and thought we might not have any takers. We needn’t have worried: we have 18 arrivals, ranging in age from about 2 years old to adult. I’m a little overwhelmed, but I have to think on my feet to make this work for all the different age groups. It’s certainly a challenge, not least since the Museum has gotten very hot in the sunshine. We put on iced water for our guests and end the tour by lying down in front of the huge Farnese Hercules, to see what he would look like if he were on a high base. Chatting to the families, it becomes clear we’re onto something here – there’s obviously a real appetite for family events which don’t assume kids need to be placated with crafts. Still, I’ll definitely think harder before jumping straight into next week’s tour!

My day ends where it began: checking emails, laminating posters and working on the Pompeiana display. Most of my days are as varied as this one, with my fingers in various different pies. Usually, I split my time between my office and the front desk, and it is a pleasure to spend so much time with visitors. Then the electric door pings shut and I’m left alone with my emails and the casts.

Digging in the Archives: Re-Discovering the Excavations of John D. Evans

I saw the poster for the Day of Archaeology (DoA) in our lift and thought I’d join in, looking at the importance of archives to the documentation and re-interpretation of older excavations. I planned to focus on archives related to the first century of excavations by a fairly eccentric cast of characters from the British School at Athens, at Knossos in Crete, where I am currently working. But in the event, I’ve been side-tracked in quite different directions, digging into the archives of John Evans, allowing me to dip into archaeology in five countries in one day, all without leaving an overcast London.

Last July, one of the former Directors of the Institute here in London, Professor John Davies Evans, died at the age of 86. I didn’t know John well, we had only met a few times, but we had a good talk at a workshop held at Sheffield in 2006, organised in honour of John and his excavations at Knossos in 1958-60 and 1969-70, which provide the entire framework for, and our most comprehensive evidence supporting, our understanding of the four millennia of the Neolithic period on Crete (see V. Isaakidou and P. Tomkins (eds) 2008. Escaping the Labyrinth. The Cretan Neolithic in Context. Oxford: Oxbow Books). As we talked, it was clear John was extremely pleased that his work at the site was still considered so fundamental, and he was also immensely relieved to be able to hand over the completion of its publication to others.

Fig. 1. Saliagos. Left: the islet of Saliagos; right: the main trench

I was working at Knossos on a current project when I learned of John’s death. I knew that while he had handed over much of his Knossos excavation archive, a large amount of the original documentation had not yet been collected from him. This was needed for the full publication of his excavations, and would eventually be archived in the British School at Athens.

Fig. 2. John Evans sorting Saliagos pottery on Antiparos

Via e-mail, I contacted his family, and we agreed that on my return from Crete in September, I would collect his academic papers, sort them, and determine how and where it would be most appropriate to archive them. With my Institute colleague Andrew Reynolds, and with help from John Lewis of the Society of Antiquaries, we collected all of John’s academic papers, and they have been taking up about half of my office ever since. (On the plus side, any meeting involving more than one other person has had to take place elsewhere – fa’coffee.)

Fig. 3. Excavations in the central court of the Minoan palace at Knossos

My original hope of sorting the papers over the Christmas or Easter breaks disappeared behind mountains of marking, and it was only last week, when I finished that and could take over one of our vacant teaching rooms to unpack it all, that I had a chance to find out what’s there. Now having consolidated it into some 40 boxes, in place of the odd assortment of boxes, suitcases, a filing cabinet, card and slide chests and a full chest of drawers, I now don’t have to slam my door whenever our fire safety officer walks by.

One of our recent PhD graduates who specialises in the history of archaeology, Amara Thornton, very kindly gave up her week to help me, and we’ve done a first sort of everything. So we now have an overview of the material, which allows us to approach others who we suspect may be interested in particular elements of the archive, and gives us an idea of the scale of the further detailed cataloguing which will be involved. I have no idea when we will be able to do this, and we will have to find some funding, as there will be a couple of months worth of work involved. But particularly relevant to today, are John’s excavation records, so let’s go digging in the archives, working, as archaeology usually does, from the known to the unknown.

I was familiar with John’s excavations on the tiny Greek Cycladic islet of Saliagos, co-directed with Colin Renfrew in 1964-65 and published in 1968 as Excavations at Saliagos Near Antiparos. [Figs 1-2 above] I talked a local boatman into taking me to the tiny offshore islet about 20 years ago to see the over-grown ruins, so seeing colour slides of the site under excavation was a treat. Colin handed over the bulk of the excavation archive to the British School some years ago, but John kept his correspondence and many slides, so I’ll copy a few for teaching, before I pack them off to Athens.

I was also very familiar with John’s Knossos excavations (Fig. 3 above and Fig. 4 below) from 1958-60 and 1969-70, through my own work at the site (our current project was the subject of a post for last year’s DoA by my colleague Andrew Shapland at the British Museum). The eight boxes of notebooks, finds lists, photos, and numerous rolls of plans and sections will be absolutely essential to complete the full publication of this major excavation. I’ve scanned and sent a couple of documents to Peter Tomkins in Leuven, which I know will help his current work on reconstructing the development of the Neolithic community.

Fig. 4. The deep sounding in the central court at Knossos

John is particularly well known for sorting out the sequence of prehistoric occupation on Malta, documented in his 1959 Malta in the classic Thames and Hudson ‘Peoples and Places’ series, and in more detail in his monumental survey of Maltese prehistory, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands, published in 1971. [Fig. 5 below] Tucked away in the latter are extremely succinct accounts of small but strategic stratigraphic tests he did in 1953-55 in eight Maltese monuments, which enabled him to establish the cultural sequence used in his publications (and still valid) to organise the results from all previous investigations. I have found about 100 photographic negatives and some section sketches from these excavations, but so far, no detailed excavation notes, nor any plans; it is just possible he archived these in Malta, and any plans may be hiding among the many rolls of drawings which I have yet to sort through individually [Fig. 6 below].

Fig. 5. John Evans on Malta, 1954-56.

An exciting surprise was recognising several original excavation notebooks by other investigators on Malta, from 1911 to 1930, which John must have brought back to the UK to draw on for his synthesis, and over 300 early photos of sites and excavations, which should go to the archive of the National Museum in Malta. Some of these seem to have come to John from the Palestine Exploration Fund, and a note says ominously ‘Harris Colt Malta orig: throw away if not wanted 20s or 30s’ – thankfully he didn’t!

I’ve e-mailed a former student, Anthony Pace, now the superintendent for cultural heritage on Malta, to work out how best to return this material. I hope we can locate John’s excavation notes, and link these with his abundant photographic documentation. As well as photos documenting his own tests, there are some 600 negatives of pottery and other finds, only some of which were used in his 1971 volume. More significant are some 300 negatives representing site visits he made in the early 1950s, only a few of which were eventually published, which document the condition of many monuments half a century ago. Altogether, this might just be the spur for a busman’s holiday to Malta, which I’ve wanted to visit for over 30 years.

Fig. 6. Malta excavations 1954. Left: Hagr Qim trench E; right: Mnajdra trench C

What I wasn’t at all familiar with, were John’s unpublished excavations, and I spent the week dashing off to the library, doing web-searches or sending e-mails to colleagues and former students, each time I stumbled across a new paper trail. With some follow-ups this week, I think I’ve now got the outlines, and since none of them are in my own field of specialisation, they generate some of the excitement of discovery, without having to say au revoir to decent coffee.

The first surprise was an excavation John conducted jointly with Francisco Jordá Cerdá of the Seminario de Historia Primitiva del Hombre, in 1950, at the earlier Bronze Age Argaric site of La Bastida de Totana in south-east Spain. This was the last in a series of campaigns in a settlement with abundant intra-mural burials. [Fig. 7 below] I haven’t yet discovered any correspondence to indicate why John got involved, but he spent much of that year in Spain researching his PhD dissertation on the possible relations between Argaric Spain and Early Bronze Age Anatolia. The specifics of how he got involved in the project may eventually emerge from his papers, though I’ve found no clues so far.

Fig. 7. La Bastida, 1950. Left: the excavation area; right: jar burial.

An e-mail to a Spanish former PhD student, Borja Legarra Herrero, now working in both the Aegean and Spain, pointed me to the web-site of the recently resumed excavations at the site, now one of the largest field projects in Spai. There, and in interim publications, the directors indicate that in 2009 John had sent them the original excavation notebooks of his Spanish collaborator, which had been bequeathed to him in 1960, along with a photocopy of his own 1950 excavation notebook (still among his papers). [Fig. 8 below] Seemingly over-looked by John at that time, are 78 cards mounted with excavation photographs, primarily of burials in situ, identified by burial and context. These relate to the 1944-45 seasons of excavations, before John became involved in the project; there must be an interesting story of personalities and politics behind why these were sent to John, but whether we can piece it together from surviving clues at either end remains to be seen.

By chance, I had taught Roberto Risch, a co-director of the new project, during his MA nearly 20 years ago, and an e-mail out of the blue from me received a reply within a couple of hours (though he cut it short because the Portugal vs Czech Republic Euro 2012 game was starting – I guess we all have priorities).

Fig. 8. La Bastida, 1950, excavation notebook

While the notebooks John sent them have allowed members of the current project to restudy the original material for publication, they had not come across these photographs in any archive in Spain, and they have had difficulty reconstructing the contexts of individual burials. (Purely coincidentally, Borja and Roberto met at a conference in Denmark a few weeks ago, and had arranged to meet for dinner while the former is working with me, and the latter is on holiday, on Crete in August; Borja planned to bring me along, though hadn’t yet mentioned it to me – I think I’d better go via the cashpoint, just to play it safe.)

So the first of today’s tasks has been to finish scanning these photographs. Ultimately, I hope the originals will be returned to Spain for archiving with the other dig records and the finds in the newly built museum at the site. In the meantime, the scans should assist the study of the old material, which has been going on for several years, and Roberto is going to get back to me for higher resolution scans of some of the photos, for incorporation into the new museum displays.

The second surprise was a series of small notebooks, a few photographs, more negatives, a few small bags with potsherds, and a box with 1/3 of a skull, from John’s 1956 excavation of three Bronze Age barrows at Earl’s Farm Down, just east of Amesbury, ca. 6 kilometres south-east of Stonehenge. [Fig. 9 below]

John Evans at Earl’s Farm Down, 1956

Amara had her laptop with her, and a Google led to the Wiltshire sites and monuments record, which, while not seemingly aware of John’s excavation, noted the excavation of four nearby barrows by Paul Ashbee in 1956. A quick run up to the library to consult Ashbee’s 1983 publication in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine confirms which barrows were excavated by John, so we can put them on the map. A contemporary report (by John – uncredited, but the typescript is among his papers), included in N. Thomas 1958, ‘Excavation and field-work in Wiltshire: 1956’ Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 56:238-40) provides information on each barrow, and indicates that these, as well as Ashbee’s excavations, were undertaken for the Department of the Environment, so this seems to have been fill-in employment just before John took up his appointment as Professor of Prehistoric European Archaeology at the Institute, to succeed Gordon Childe. [Fig. 10 below]

 

Fig. 10. Earl’s Farm Down, 1956, excavation notebook

A much later letter mentions in passing that John thought the finds were all stored in the Institute. On the off chance that there were more than the few sherds he had kept with the notebooks, I fired off an e-mail to my colleague Rachel Sparks, who manages our collections, only to get her out of office message – jury duty! However, that evening I got a message back that a search of the records suggests we have material from Earl’s Farm Down which wasn’t identified as John’s excavation in our records, so has been in that special limbo all collections have for under-documented material.

So the second of today’s tasks has been to see whether this material is from the barrows, and to get an idea of the potential size of a publication project. The writing on the bags is John’s, and the recording system matches that on the few bags he kept with his notes, so that’s confirmed (see Rachel’s DoA entry). There is a fair collection of material, and with it in the box were a few more negatives, as well as a few finds from other sites which had been mis-filed in the same box. So confirmation for me, a few mysteries back to limbo for Rachel to try to sort out – but fewer than she started her DoA with, so I’d say we’re winning.

Writing-up this excavation should be suitable as a student dissertation project, possibly for publication in WAM (I mentioned it in passing to Andrew Reynolds, the editor, and he’s interested), after which the finds and records should probably be archived with other local material in the Salisbury Museum.

A third surprise was that John conducted a single season of trial tests in 1972 in collaboration with local archaeologists at the Iron Age hillfort of Segovia in southern Portugal. John’s principal academic interests were in the Mediterranean Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, so what led him to get involved in a major Iron Age and Roman site? [Fig. 11 below] Hopefully there will be some hint when I can work through the documentation and correspondence systematically.

Again, purely coincidentally, his Portuguese collaborator, José Morais Arnaud, was completing his PhD at Cambridge when I began mine in 1980, and Teresa Judice Gamito expanded the 1972 trenches in connection with her own doctoral research in the early 1980s, publishing her thesis with BAR (Social Complexity in Southwest Iberia 800-300 B.C.), which we have upstairs, though we don’t have the Portuguese journal where she reported her excavations. Her summary indicates the importance of the excavation, providing the principal regional stratified sequence from the Late Bronze Age through the Roman conquest.

Fig 11. Segovia, 1972. Left: site; right, summit trenches

The documentation for this excavation is more extensive, involving several trench notebooks, photos, plans, sections and finds drawings, which I will need more time to sort through. Because the trenches were subsequently extended, I expect John gave his collaborators copies of everything, but I’m chasing this up with José to see if we can supply whatever may be needed for their archives, to facilitate future study.

Following this trial field season, John became Director of the Institute, and administration seems to have taken over his life (a feeling all of us are now experiencing) and he stopped fieldwork; he was only able to return to working on his excavations after his retirement, as several boxes of transcribed notebooks, finds and photo lists for Knossos, along with a large box of computer disks testify (now I have to find a working Amstrad computer, to read the disks, to make sure we have copies of all the relevant files).

Sorting the Segovia records, along with more detailed cataloguing of all of John’s papers, will have to wait until sometime in the winter at earliest, when I may get another chance to unpack the boxes. So I’ve just had to figuratively back-fill my excavation in the archives, until the next season.
But as a final surprise, my query to Rachel about Earl’s Farm Down, has turned-up other materials in our storerooms, brought in by John, and checking these with Rachel is my third task for the DoA, which she has noted in her own DoA account. As well as various small bits of pottery useful for teaching purposes, given to John by excavators during his early travels in Spain, which we may be able to document more fully (presently simply catalogued by site name), two more significant collections exist. We have the human and animal skeletal material from his excavation of six communal rock-cut tombs at Xemxija on Malta. Summary reports on this material were included as appendices in John’s 1971 volume, but more could now be done to study the human remains in terms of community demography, the health and life history of individuals, and the social and ritual contexts of burial; the much smaller collection of animal bones holds much less potential. The former would repay new study, particularly in comparison with more recently excavated material, and could make an excellent dissertation project for a student on our MSc in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology.

The second collection consists of two boxes of carbonised plant remains and soil samples (to which I can add another box John had at home) from Knossos. The site is one of half a dozen representing the earliest Neolithic communities in Europe, established ca. 7000 BC. The plant remains were originally studied as part of the British Academy’s Major Research Project on the Early History of Agriculture, with John taking enthusiastic advantage of the newly developed flotation recovery technique and fine sieving in his 1969-70 excavations. The botanical samples from the two different campaigns were distributed among different specialists in the UK and Denmark.

I had hoped we could track down all of these through the paper trail of John’s administrative correspondence for the project – I wasn’t expecting to find any still in London. Checking them, they are still in bags with their context labels (Rachel and I took the opportunity to replace a few fragile bags) so their study should contribute to our understanding of early agriculture in the Aegean. I’ve notified Valasia Isaakidou of Sheffield University of this material, as she is co-ordinating the study and publication of the environmental and bioarchaeological material recovered by John at Knossos.

Finally, still completely unexplored, are some rolls of plans and a box with the documentation and a few finds from several small excavations conducted by John’s wife, Evelyn Sladdin, before she started her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and met John. She published one, but the others, small Roman and Medieval digs, apparently not. I may have to pencil-in the ‘excavation’ of that multi-site box for the DoA next year.

So what’s next? My priority for the autumn and winter, to fit in around teaching, will be to catalogue the Knossos documentation, about five times as much as all the rest together, as this major excavation is actively being worked up for publication by a number of colleagues, and the full documentation is eagerly awaited. Peter Tomkins, who is writing-up the stratigraphy and pottery from John’s excavations, and synthesising this with his own extensive work with Sir Arthur Evans’ tests below the Bronze Age palace, is coming to London in September for a meeting at the Society of Antiquaries being organised to commemorate John’s career, so I hope we can start going through this material together then.

It’s frustrating to have started this ‘excavation’, but have to leave it – but then most real excavations are like that too. This has turned into a far larger, but also much more interesting task than I anticipated nearly a year ago when I contacted John’s family. From my conversation with John in 2006, when he was both pleased that his excavations at Knossos were still important, and relieved that their publication would be completed, I’m sure he would approve our excavating his archive, to make the material available to other researchers.

This Day of Archaeology marks the last attention I can give to it for some time, but has clarified what we have, and what we need to do next. Realistically, considering the job ahead (and there is a lot more to his papers than just his excavation documentation), I think it may be some time before I’ll see the floor on that half of my office again. It’s been busy but intriguing – and it isn’t often that one can dig into archaeology in five different countries in one day.

Today has also brought home forcefully three things that confront me every time I work on Knossian material: how productive and cost effective re-examining older material can be, despite the constant push to recover new evidence with up-to-date techniques; that we have a responsibility to squeeze as much information as we can out of what we dig up – it is a non-renewable resource; and how crucial it is to understand our own disciplinary history – who collected what, when and why – to understand that evidence most effectively.

I’d like to thank Judith and Mike Conway, John Lewis, Andrew Reynolds, Kelly Trifilo, Stephen Shennan, Cathy Morgan, Peter Warren, Sandra Bond, Katie Meheux and Gabe Moshenska who helped arrange for and assisted the transfer of the material to the Institute of Archaeology; Lisa Fentress, Reuben Grima, Borja Legarra Herrero, José Morais Arnaud, Anthony Pace, Colin Renfrew, Artur Ribeiro, Roberto Risch and Tim Schadla-Hall for responding to my queries; Stuart Laidlaw for scanning slides and negatives; Amara Thornton for helping me sort John’s papers and providing details about some of the colourful characters who dug on the then colonial ‘circuit’; Rachel Sparks for chasing Institute collections records, digging out John’s material from the Institute storerooms, and helping me look through it; and the DoA folks for coping with this submission.

All images from J. D. Evans archive.

Four Days in the Life of a Postdoctoral Researcher

Tuesday, June 26

I have recently proposed an online course for the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. My day started with a meeting at Madingley Hall to discuss this idea with the manager of the courses. The online provision is a novelty at Cambridge and the manager has been surprised how many of the customers are apparently totally new to the ICE and create a truly global audience. Thus, my idea needs a rethink in order to fulfil their remit to be able to run the course at least three times and reach a wider audience with a less area-specific title. The course seems to stay in development. Luckily, the manager has to put on his second hat as the manager of the International Summer School so I will have until late August or September to brainstorm.

After the meeting I headed to the University Library to check the dates suggested for the calibrated chronology of the late central Italian prehistory. The book in question seemed to be in the open collection so I decided to go the Department of Archaeology first. I had a series of illustrations to do for an article; thus, I needed to scan some slides with a slide scanner and to check old GIS coverages in order to edit the figures needed for the wetlands volume Water : Movement – The importance of rivers, lakes and wetlands in prehistoric societies edited by Andrea Vianello. It turned out that the slide scanner had not been connected to the network since the last network update and I had to get the departmental computing officer David Redhouse, the network administrator required to add an USB appliance, to come and get the scanner online. In addition, for some reason scanning slides is always prone to random difficulties. This time one slide turned all black and one bright red; if only one had foreseen how redundant the old photographic forms were to come and how quickly slide scanners became obsolete. I shiver with the thought of upgrading from the current modes of storing them.

I scanned the slides for the illustrations and saved them in order to edit them later and proceeded into creating a series of new ArcMap coverages in order to have the correct features in my figures. Since I can edit all new CorelDraw files further at home later during the week, I just created the content I needed and imported it to the CorelDraw for later editing and use. The day finished with fetching the book I had looked for in the online catalogue earlier from the stack in the UL and updating the dates taken from my PhD.

 

University Library at Cambridge

University Library at Cambridge

 

Wednesday, June 27

This morning saw me giving a lecture in the Exploring Art course (Makers and Materials II) in the Embrace Arts. This course is part of the Art History lecture series in the Richard Attenborough Centre at the University of Leicester. These courses are organized by the Institute for Lifelong Learning at Leicester. The course director was sitting in this time in order to assess me and start the process of including me officially in the tutor panel. Considering that W. G. Hoskins taught at the Vaughan College and for the Workers’ Educational Association, I am not in bad company.

 

My slide

My lecture is about to start

 

The lecture on Phaidias at Olympia, a topical subject due to the arrival of Olympic flame relay to Leicester on Monday, went well and the learners seemed interested and enthusiastic.

In the afternoon I started to edit the illustrations but managed to make very slow process, since I had to crosscheck different place names mentioned in the text and their locations.

 

Thursday, June 28

In the morning I uploaded my archaeological blog ‘Landscape Perceptions’, where I did blog about this Archaeology Day last week. This week’s topic was ‘Summer Season of Archaeological News’ in which I discussed some Roman glass beads from Japan. I try to be topical; thus, I have reviewed both Pub Archaeology and Mary Beard’s excellent ‘Meet the Romans’, while discussing important archaeological topics. As a busy working mother, I am lucky to be able to keep a weekly blog!

On this particular day I had to make some preparations for my coming short work trip to Rome. I have to keep my Italian mobile number alive by crediting it at least once a year. This I could have sorted otherwise – online or bothering colleagues – but for drawing a few diagnostic pieces of pottery for an article I am preparing and meeting the new inspector for Crustumerium where I excavated between 2004 and 2008 you have to travel to Italy. In order to make swifter moves from the airport to the centre, from the centre to the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, where I store some utensils, and from Rome to Civita Castellana, I have hired a car. I try to make this trip on a shoestring so avoiding the extra insurances in the car rental place is paramount. Thus, I had to buy a car hire excess insurance online that was much cheaper than any tie-ins.

Secondly, I needed a new cabin trolley. My husband will be leaving almost immediately for Turkey for work on my arrival so he could not lend his but I had to go to the city centre to buy a new one. I managed to spend almost two hours while comparing models, weights and volumes in different department stores and to lose my toddler son in the process. It is good to know that the security in the shops can be used to spot runaway children with extra energy…

I also had to send a recent article, out about a month ago, to the inspectors in different Superintendencies whose areas I was discussing in my article ‘Political landscapes and local identities in Archaic central Italy – Interpreting the material from Nepi (VT, Lazio) and Cisterna Grande (Crustumerium, RM, Lazio)’. In addition, there were e-mails from the first hostel I am staying in Rome and a follow-up message from the lecturer responsible for the Landscape History courses in the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge to deal with. I also finally received a photo register file from my assistant.

 

Friday, June 29

As I suspected, my Friday looks like it will be less than exciting. I have to do a job application, continue editing and compiling illustrations for the article I now have the material for and look at briefly some other texts in order to make progress on them. I will look at the summary of the activities before turning off my laptop in the early evening.

 

Editing illustrations

Editing illustrations

 

*          *          *

Not unsurprisingly the time flew and I barely got the illustrations ready – all 15 of them. I also wrote the list of captions and inserted the references into the text. There is one illustration I am not happy with but I have to do it later; its colour scheme does not take the change to the greyscale well. I may also have to include a 16th figure in order to show more of the real landscape in a photo. The other texts have to wait until next week. One is always optimistic what one manages to do in one day…

networks, administration, garden centres, maternity…

I’m currently on maternity leave, looking after our five-week old son, so my archaeological brain is somewhat disconnected at present. However, before the arrival of the boy, my job(s) entailed many things.

My mornings were spent working at the Ancient India and Iran Trust in Cambridge, a small, independent library of 25,000 volumes dedicated to the archaeology, history, linguistics and cultures of India, Iran, and Central Asia. As the Administrator of the institution, my job involves anything from organising a plumber to fix the leaky tap, to writing, editing and designing our newsletter, Indiran (download a copy here), to thinking about potential donors and contacts for fundraising.

Afternoons I was generally working on turning my PhD into a book – I work on the spread of religious innovations in the Roman world. My research uses network analysis to plot epigraphic finds (gravestones, altars, dedications of any sort – usually containing information about the person who died, dedicated etc, sometimes containing information about a deity, sometimes having a date too) onto the map to try and think about how ideas expressed in these finds were transmitted. By using networks to link these epigraphic findspots together, we bypass the rather static ‘dots on a map’ created by simply mapping the findspots themselves and turn the catalogue into an altogether more dynamic set of data, revealing potential flows of information and innovation. Inscriptions are wonderful – physical, archaeological material, found, excavated, and located in definite places (though mobile to a degree), and offering us the actual words that the long-dead chose to use. There’s nothing like the feeling of finding a new inscription somewhere on a hillside in eastern Turkey, and trying to decipher the chipped, eroded letters.

Now that my maternal brain is the one that’s in the forefront, I spend my days mainly feeding, burping, changing and cooing over our baby, and that’s just lovely. But the archaeological brain never switches off – this afternoon my mum, me and the boy went out to a garden centre – and on the way drove through the landscape of south Cambridge. You can’t help but slide surreptitiously through the veneer of modern life, with the tarmac and the cars, the newbuilds and the enormous hospital, to find yourself in the layers of pre-now – is this lovely straight section of road part of the Roman road that cuts below the Iron Age hillfort hidden in the trees to the right? Beyond, the Fleam Dyke and the Devil’s Dyke cut sharp lines across the sunken fenland, miles of rough grass mound rich in bee-orchids and wildflowers, marking out ancient defences and allowing views down the Icknield Way. The houses that etch out village lives so far distant and unfamiliar to the commuters that occupy them now – merchants in saffron, farmers, Great North Eastern railway workers. The archaeological brain slips briefly into all these pockets of previous, accidentally almost, before refocusing on the road ahead.

A day in the life of a zooarchaeologist – playing with bones at the Natural History Museum

This week I have been at the Natural History Museum in London collecting data for my PhD project.

My project is looking at the size and shape change of the Aurochs across Europe over time. The Aurochs was the ancestor of domestic cattle, it appeared during the Middle Pleistocene and went extinct in Poland in 1627AD. In Britain they went extinct during the Bronze Age. This animal was quite commonly hunted by humans until domestication took place. The Aurochs was very similar to our modern day cattle, but larger. Some of the males were massive – often over 2 metres tall. Below you can see a couple of pictures of what they look like. You can imagine the amount of meat that you would get from one of these if you successfully hunted it, and you can see the size of the bones that I’m dealing with! My data collection consists of visiting Aurochs assemblages and taking measurements from the postcranial (limb bones) and teeth, as well as from the skulls.

Me with an Aurochs at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge

 

The data collection part of my work has taken me to various places across Europe. So far I have visited Portugal, Denmark and Poland, and later this year I will also visit Italy and France. This summer I am concentrating on the British material. This will take me to a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

This blog post will talk about what I have been up to over the whole week, because then this gives you a sense of the different material I have been working on.

I had visited the NHM very briefly before so I knew pretty much what to expect, however you never know what you might find in hiding away there, so I was pretty excited about my visit. At the start of the week I was booked in to look at material held by the Mammal Group, then later on in the week I visited the Palaeontology Department too. The general rule is that the Palaeontology Department deals with anything up to the end of the Pleistocene, and then the Mammal Group keeps material from the Holocene (the Mesolithic onwards), with a few exceptions.

An Aurochs displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

When you first arrive at the NHM you have to go through a number of security checks and they issue you with a security pass so that you can get ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I arrived at the Fleet theatre entrance on Exhibition road with a lot of stuff – I had all of my equipment, and other stuff to keep me going for the week. The security guard wanted to search all of my bags and was especially intrigued by the metal implements that I had with me. These included two pairs of callipers. One smaller pair for taking smaller measurements, and a larger pair curved callipers which I had brought in order to take measurements from massive skulls. In the end he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to try and kill anyone with them and let me go through.

Next I met up Roberto Portela from the mammal group who organised my security pass. Only then was I allowed loose on the bones. In the mammal group you aren’t allowed to take any bags or food down to the stores, you have to take everything you need down in a plastic box, so this always takes a little while to sort out. Then we went down to the basement. I was given a desk in the centre of the mammal collections surrounded by tall cupboards full of bones, and glass cases with articulated skeletons. There was no one else down there and it might have been a bit scary if it wasn’t for the fact that I was thoroughly distracted by the bones.

In the mammal group I was primarily interested in material from the site of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. A lot of aurochs were excavated from here, along with a large amount of Red Deer, and other wild animals. I was given access to the appropriate cupboards and then it was up to me to have a rummage through to see what I could find. Often it takes longer to find good bones to record than to actually record and measure them. Every museum (or even museum department) has a different system and many museums do not have an electronic database so you have to check things manually. This can be annoying, but also exciting because you could always randomly come across things that you weren’t expecting.

I managed to track down all of the material I needed and by the end of the day I had made a good start on it. On Tuesday I was able to get going a lot earlier because I didn’t have to deal with so much security and working was much faster once I had got into a rhythm.

The way that zooarchaeologists record bones can differ depending on their project. Some people try to identify every piece of bone if they can, but this can be very time consuming, especially if you have a very large number of bones. One way of getting round this is to decide on specific parts of bones that you will record. Because primarily I am interested in measurements, my protocol focuses on the parts of bones that will be able to provide me with that information. For example the distal end (the bottom end) of long bones, because these provide very useful information. I record all of my bones in an access database which, along with excel, I will later use to do my statistical analysis.

By the end of Tuesday I had finished recording most of the aurochs bones from Star Carr and a few other sites with less material. These included Thatcham, and East Ham. On Wednesday morning I only needed to come back to measure 3 skulls – these were in great condition, and absolutely massive. This may have something to do with the fact that they were much older than a lot of the bones I have been looking at – they were from the Pleistocene.

By Wednesday afternoon I was finished in the Mammal Group so I phoned Andy Currant in the Palaeontology Department and went over there to see what stuff they had. I spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Thursday there.

The Palaeontology department had material from a site called Ilford in Essex. This material has been dated to the late middle Pleistocene so is much older than the Star Carr stuff, and much bigger! Surprisingly, considering it’s age, this material was also in much better condition than that from Star Carr, with many complete bones. Complete bones take longer than partial bones to record because there are more measurements to be taken so it actually took me a fair while to record all of the bones. There were a number of skulls found at Ilford, some with complete horncores. These were neatly packed into a cupboard but were extremely heavy and difficult to get out. We spent a long time figuring out what was the best way of moving them.

After I had recorded all of the bones from Ilford I had a hunt around to see if there was any other material that could be useful. The staff in the Palaeontology department were extremely helpful, and provided me with a list of potential sites, and cupboard numbers. Still, I had to hunt through quite a few cupboards and drawers before I eventually found another assemblage that would be useful. The material was from a site called Grays Thurrock. This stuff was less complete than that from Ilford, but there were an awful lot of teeth, which took a while to record.

Finally at 4pm on Thursday I finished with all of the material in the Palaeontology Department, and treated myself to some tea and cake in the museum cafe (I recommend the lemon drizzle – a real treat!).

 

So that brings us to the end of your whirlwind tour of my time at the Natural History Museum. If you have been inspired by zooarchaeology and want to find out more about the kinds of things that we do, then go here to the webpage of my research group: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/zooarchaeology/

 

I would like to thank the NHM Mammal Group, especially Roberto Portela, and the Palaeontology Department, especially Andy Currant and Spyridoula Pappa for their help with access to the collections and their general enthusiasm during my week at the Natural History Museum.