Dead bodies, texts and reviews: a day in the life of a theoretical archaeologist and a body person

I am a theoretical archaeologist -which always raises a few eyebrows if this is even a legitimate field of research in our field- and a body person (more pompously: an osteoarchaeologist with an interest in history of physical anthropology): I deal with dead bodies and follow scientists’ interactions with them, throughout history and contexts. The public’s perception of archaeology is usually the one associated with field research, or in the best case, laboratory analyses—and I would say this is pretty much shared inside our field as well—but the life of some of us is mostly spent in front of a computer, in archives and museums/collections. Being interested in the history of 2 intertwined disciplines, archaeology and physical anthropology, I spend most of my time deconstructing texts written by my colleagues -dead or alive- and placing them in the contexts of their creation. Why do we write/draw/measure as we do? How did we change perspectives over what a dead body stands for, how do we frame identity and human variability, and where do we want archaeology to go next? These are some of the questions that keep me tied to my laptop, when I am not browsing through musty papers and photographs from archives.

This year’s day of archaeology finds me resting between 2 such projects.

One is a freshly finished text on a ‘scientific ossuary‘, an early 20th c. skulls and archaeological skeletons anthropological collection in Romania (the collection housed at the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ in Bucharest). Writing is a tedious effort, which nowadays presuposes a complex (to be read: source of frustration) network of mostly online communication – between you, editors, reviewers, friends who are nice enough to read and comment on your texts etc. Bottom line—typing, reading, typing, and typing again. Bearing in mind the amazing and life changing slogan ‘publish or perish’, and with occasional intermezzos of browsing Academic Pain or similar ‘motivational’ procrastination devices.

The other one is a study on kings’ bodies, and archaeological narratives of identity and identification around such excavated corpses: a text on political anatomies and bodies (part of a great international and Polish-led project).

Between these 2, I also need to squizz in a book review, some applications- the life of young academics in archaeology, always in need of a job/project-, updating my blog (Bodies and Academia; @BodiesAcademia) getting ready a special journal’s issue on bodies/matter, and some procrastination, of course.

I am not sure if mine is the most glamorous way of spending The Day of Archaeology—writing, reading, copy-editing, sleeping, doing nothing, and then some more writing. But it shows another take on what an archaeologist might do.


Some of the books that frame my day, materials which wait to be consulted


Architecture, Photogrammetry and Thoughts on a Friday

My day-to-day work in the Planning Services section of MOLA involves assessing planning proposals at various stages of development to ascertain whether, and to what degree, they would impact on existing heritage. However, on Wednesday though about twenty of my colleagues and I were able to leave our desks for a couple of hours and spend some time getting inspired by a talk on the ‘new photogrammetry’ and wondering how best we can fit this into our daily work.

photo 4

The talk was by Giorgio Verdiani from the Department of Architecture at the University of Florence who I invited to MOLA after meeting him and hearing about his and his colleagues’ and students’ amazing work with digital recording at a conference in Florence in June. I won’t bore with the technical details of the talk here (click on the link above for loads of info and images). Instead, I want to mention a few points that the talk has kept me thinking about right up to and through this Day of Archaeology.

Perhaps the most poignant stems from new photogrammetry being quick, using almost any camera and reliant on the user knowing exactly how to get the best digital data from their camera in the field. For this kind of rapid photogrammetry to be adopted widely in archaeology necessitates us to have good skills with a manual camera. Depth of field, shutter speed, the framing of a shot, getting all of these right is key to recording the data you need. Over the last ten years or so, archaeology has become reliant on point-and shoot digital photography to the point that that basic knowledge is not really part of the average archaeologist’s repertoire. Many new staff will have never even used a manual camera. In this instance, early adoption of digital cameras might have inadvertently increased the gap between us and the new technology. I think there’s a need for us to re-learn how to take good photos, sooner rather than later!

The second thing that struck me is the level of theoretical thinking behind photographic recording (or survey in general), sometimes forgotten in the details and data processing. Any survey taken from multiple points, whether with a camera, total station, drone etc., is an attempt to create structure from motion. Although the thing being surveyed and the record itself are generally static, neither can exist or be fully understood without movement. I think we can easily apply this notion to all thinking and looking in archaeology especially as we have the luxury of more than three dimensions to observe with and from. It sometimes feels a little as if we are too quick to take away our postcard image, our interpretation that fits our expectations, when maybe we need to spend a bit more time looking from multiple perspectives and using the overlaps to create ‘models’ instead.

Lastly (and quickly, sorry…) having an architect from Florence talking to archaeologists in London is an unequivocally good thing. I’ve rarely had an interdisciplinary conversation that hasn’t left all involved with new knowledge, new connections and inspiration to do new things, or old things in different ways. Of course, many of us provide particular, distinctly archaeological services, but we can still do that at the end of much more nuanced, exiting, collaborative processes, so don’t stop trying to find new ways to think about things. Every so often it’ll result in having a beer with a group of Italian architects by a canal, discussing future collaborations.

Anyway, that’s what’s going through my mind on Day of Archaeology. Can you tell I’m going on holiday tomorrow?

James Dixon, @James__Dixon


Mystery, Diversity and the Joy of Archaeology

Human beings are odd beasts. So much more than political animals, our ‘habits’ are so varied that they sometimes seem far from habitual. Capable of action on all scales, from building enormous monuments that take millions of people over many generations to a single individual caring for a companion in the face of incurable illness.

Yet, go with any person to the place they sleep and you will learn much about them, their society, economics, politics, aesthetics and so on. You can learn from the materials of that space – Do they sleep on a bed? under blankets? are they clean? Do they have Justin Beiber posters? Picasso prints? Turner originals? Is there water by the bed? is the cup glass, pottery or metal?