University of Glasgow

First World War Friday

dayofarch

I am a research assistant at the University of Glasgow. Like all archaeologists, I’m an individual of many talents: I have degrees in archaeology, I’m based in the University Archives, and I’m technically a staff member in the Department of History.

I am the project officer for Glasgow University’s Great War, a research project led by well-known fellow archaeologist Tony Pollard that looks at the experiences of the university community during the First World War. The project is part of the university’s WWI centenary commemorations. I specialise in conflict archaeology and I’ve excavated on the Western Front, so the Great War Project is a good fit for me.

On a normal day I mostly do research, with a bit of admin thrown in (though there is the occasional day when that balance is reversed). Today I’m looking at material from Capt JAC Macewen RAMC, son of the famous Glasgow surgeon Sir William Macewen. I’m particularly interested in the younger Macewen’s letters home to his parents. Letters to his mother are cheerful:

I have written to Mary regarding Sydney coming to France. Of course he is in danger, but, at the same time, I would not be despondent. Of our total casualties, a big percentage are sickness of one kind or other – often slight gassing & a very large percentage of wounds are really not serious. …[T]hings are not as bad as they look. So try to cheer up generally.

I am surprised to learn that Capt Macewen was put in charge of treating German POWs. I’m particularly keen to pass along this info to another archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, Iain Banks, who is researching European POW camps. Capt Macewen wrote to his father describing the medical cases he saw:

I see all cases, including fractures, head injuries (I have operated on 4 of these today) & abdomens…. …[T]he Germans are much tougher than we are & survive the most appalling injuries. One man I did today has half of his face blown away & a large hernia cerebri of his frontal lobe – so that I see very much worse cases than the others do. Truly the suffering in this war is not all on one side.

One of the letters even includes seashells from Paris Plage sent home in May 1918.

macewen seashells

Wandering around the repository is always an adventure. I don’t have the honed knowledge of the collections like my archivist colleagues, so my trips to the shelves to pull material are usually more meandering, sometimes resulting in dead ends (I haven’t set off the alarm by going through a fire door in MONTHS). Exploring the stacks in this haphazard way is occasionally fruitful, discovering something I didn’t know I was looking for. Sometimes I come up empty-handed. Even if I do, the journey is always interesting.

archives

Wandering past a shelf, I spotted an over-size album of the Glasgow Archaeological Society. It’s full of photos, clippings, notes and drawings like this sketch of Rough Castle Roman Fort.

plan of rough castle

There are plenty of artefacts kicking about, too. I spotted a few from the Scottish Brewing Archive.

brewing archive

I also meandered past the (very large!) glass slide collection of Sir John Harvard Biles.

Biles slides

That’s my Day of Archaeology. Until next year, you can keep up-to-date on Glasgow University’s Great War Project by following us on Twitter and checking out our newly-launched blog.

High Crimes: Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes

Painting of Santa Rosa

Painting of Santa Rosa stolen from the church of the Bolivian village of Jesus de Machaca and recovered on the London art market in 2011 (image via. Bolivia’s Ministry of Cultures)

Although I am a trained field archaeologist, I now work for a criminology department. I study the looting of archaeological and historic sites and the transnational trade in illicit cultural property. That is what I am doing now, in La Paz, Bolivia, 3700 feet above sea level, thanks to a Fulbright grant and a Leverhulme fellowship.

I am part of the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s Trafficking Culture project. My research group is approaching looting and antiquities trafficking from new angles to hopefully come up with interesting regulatory responses to this problem. Besides larger criminological and market analyses, our project is engaged in several regional case studies. That is where I fit in. I am looking into this phenomenon in Latin America and, right now, in Bolivia.

At the moment I am working on the looting of remote Conquest-era churches and the international market for stolen ecclesiastical paintings, sculpture and silver. The Andes are filled with rural churches: they were part of the evangelising mission of the Spanish Conquistadors. These churches are filled with spectacular and regionally-specific art. Most notable in Bolivia is silver work: for several hundred years the majority of the world’s silver came from Bolivia and Indigenous artists had a ready supply to make thousands of beautiful objects of devotion. Unfortunately there are collectors out there who are willing to buy stolen church art and, as supply meets demand, poor Bolivian communities are robbed of their heritage.

Stone Church at village of Laja

This church at the Bolivian village of Laja was robbed in 2012 (wikimedia commons)

Bolivia is culturally rich but economically poor. These churches are in bad states of repair and are insecure. Many cannot be alarmed, even if they are located in an area with electricity, because there is no money for such things. In most of the villages where churches are located residents live well below the poverty line so the idea of paying a full time guard is laughable. Increase police presence? Not when the nearest police outpost is 100km away over an unpaved road. Not when this country is thought to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the Americas.

But even the most important and well-protected Bolivian churches are not safe. In April the church of the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s most holy and miraculous shrine, was robbed of the silver and gold that anointed the Virgin herself. The baby Jesus in her arms was stolen as well. A priest who was at Copacabana on temporary assignment was jailed this week for involvement in the robbery. The holy pieces have not been recovered. My guess is that they were carried into Peru and then on to anonymity. That was the 6th church robbery in Bolivia in only 4 months.

17th Century Painting of the Virgin of Copacabana

A 17th century painting of the Virgin of Copacabana surrounded by silver (public domain)

I am constantly asked why these silver-filled churches were not robbed before. If they have been sitting out there, vulnerable, for 500 years why are they only being robbed now? The best answer I can give is that there was no illicit market for these items before. These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things.

I warn I am writing in advance because my day will include being without internet.

So what will my day be? On this day of archaeology I will take a taxi to the La Paz cemetery then squish myself into a minibus. I will head westward for about two hours until I reach the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiwanaku.

Tiwanaku is a vast, monumental, pre-Inka site that I excavated at (when I was a diggy-archaeologist) back in 2004 and 2005. I am sad to say that in 2011 Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was robbed. It wasn’t the first time. The thieves have not been arrested and the objects stolen have not been recovered. I am going out there to talk to old friends about the robbery. I am interested to hear their perceptions about how the theft could have been prevented, their thoughts on the response of public authorities, and how they feel the robbery has affected the community. I want to hear the facts but I also want to hear wild speculation, rumours, and emotion. I think emotion is very important in this kind of work.

Tiwanaku's church

Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was built by the Spanish from stoned looted from the nearby World Heritage site. It was robbed in 2011 (photo by the author)

And, really, this is an emotional issue with grave consequences. Just last year two men were caught robbing the church in the small Bolivian village of Quila Quila. The villagers apprehended the men and, in a public display of frustration, insecurity, and fear, they lynched the alleged robbers and buried them behind the church.

A ruined church in Bolivia

A ruined and abandoned church in the Altiplano, Bolivia’s high plain (Jduranboger, CC attribution)

I don’t think most people imagine that what I do is archaeology (even the Day of Archaeology website doesn’t have a category for this post to fit into!), but I think that it is. The past is what we say it is, and we believe that the physical remains of the past are important. That they are worthy of being preserved as tools of both memory and identity. When they are ripped from their contexts and sold on the black market,  everyone loses. We are all robbed because we will never get to know the information those objects contained. “Neocolonialism” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in Bolivia: it is a word that even people with no education know. The illicit antiquities trade is a prime example of neocolonialism. When objects are stolen from vulnerable areas of the developing world and moved into the hands of rich people in the developed world, we perpetuate an unjust imbalance. We keep people down.

This is my dream job. I am so thankful to be able to do this research.

Discovering Dumfries and Galloway’s Past

Well, hello from a soggy south-west Scotland. I’m Giles, Development Officer for Discovering Dumfries and Galloway’s Past and I wanted to tell you on Day of Archaeology 2012 about the project and what we are going to be doing over the next week or so…

DDGP is an exciting new community archaeology project based in south-west, providing training in using geophysical survey to help volunteers record, understand and interpret the region’s fascinating archaeology. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity for local people right across the region to get involved in the surveys – it’s a great way to find out more about buried archaeology without having to excavate.

What is geophysics, and what can we find out using it?

Not all archaeology is about excavation – you may have come across ‘geofizz’ on TV’s Time Team where it’s often used to plan where to put the trenches in. Geophysics is a way of mapping buried archaeological deposits – be they ditches, pits or building material – without ever breaking the ground surface.

There are two main techniques for geophysical survey:

Glasgow University archaeologists undertaking resistivity survey

Resistivity: By passing a small electrical current into the ground, and measuring the amount of resistance that results, it is possible to locate buried remains of archaeological interest.

Resistance is related to the amount of moisture in the soil. Around buried walls, for example, the surrounding soil will often be dryer. The current cannot pass so easily through this dry soil, so stonework can often show up as areas of higher resistance. This technique is therefore ideal for locating building walls and foundations.

Glasgow University archaeologists undertaking magnetic survey

Magnetometry:  This technique detects extremely small variations in the earth’s magnetic field, caused when the ground has been disturbed by previous activity. Burning, for instance, will often leave a significant magnetic trace.

Magnetometry is excellent for locating ditches, pits, middens, hearths and kilns – and is great at covering large areas quite quickly.

The great thing about geophysical survey is that the results can be rapidly downloaded on site to a laptop, and even with minimum processing it is possible to define ‘anomalies’ which can represent buried archaeology. For volunteers on the project surveys this is great – they can see the fruits of their labours in the field. We are aiming to get these very quickly into reports which will be uploaded onto our website, to share them with as wide an audience as possible.

Our next survey
It’s all a bit hectic in the office today as we put the finishing touches to our programme for next week’s survey. We’ll be undertaken both magnetic and resistivity survey at the nationally important site of the Roman fort at Birrens. This continues work that the University of Glasgow have been concentrating on – looking in and around Roman military sites in Eastern Dumfriesshire.

Magnetic survey results around Bankhead Roman fort, Dalswinton

This has looked at fabulous sites around Lockerbie, such as the Roman fort at Dalswinton. As you can see this has added loads of detail (as you can see on the right) to both the inside of the fort of Bankhead and the surrounding area – which aerial photographs have shown to be really interesting.

At Birrens Roman fort, near Middlebie, we’ll be focusing on similar things. A group of 6 volunteers will be joining us for 3 days next week to carry out some resistivity survey on the interior – hopefully we’ll get detail of the street pattern, as well as an idea of how the buildings – both the barrack blocks and administrative headquarters of the fort – were laid out.

You can find out more about Birrens fort – known to the Romans as blatobulgium (literally the ‘flour sack’) here.

We’re having an Open Day on Saturday July 7th – it’ll be a great chance to show the public the results as well as an opportunity to show just how geophysics ‘works’ – including the amount of walking in straight lines that’s involved! The response has been fantastic locally – so here’s hoping for some sunshine!

I hope this has wet your apetite both for ‘geophysics’ and the project – please see our website to keep up to date with the latest – discoveringdgpast.wordpress.com.

The project is jointly funded by the Scottish Government and The European Community, Dumfries and Galloway Leader 2007-2013; The Crichton Foundation and The University of Glasgow.