Iceland > Brazil #worldinterview #13

Iceland > Brazil

Interviewee: Artur Henrique Franco Barcelos

Do you think academic departments need to demonstrate ‘relevance’ to public audiences – if so what are the challenges?

Yes, certainly. The main challenge is to break with the academic conception of knowledge and to create strategies of dialogues with the external public.. But this will only be possible if academic archaeologists understand the importance of the debates proposed by Public Archaeology.

How do you see digital technology contributing to the interpretation and research agendas for archaeologists and anthropologists in the future?

I believe that digital tools, however advanced, continue to play the same role as drawings and photographs do in the archaeological works of the nineteenth century. Its use can never replace solid theoretical training and a capacity for reflection on the data facilitated by technology.

What role to archaeologists play in holding those in power accountable?

This depends on what power we are talking about. If it is political power, this varies from country to country, according to the local laws on the archaeological heritage, its research and its preservation. In this case, archaeologists must know the law and organize ways to participate directly or indirectly in political bodies. If we are talking about power in a generic way, it is up to archaeologists to recognize the forms and practices of power with which they are dealing, especially when dealing with fragile communities in relation to political and economic power.

In what way do you see archaeology changing as the 21st century progresses?

I believe there are two possible paths to archaeology in the face of significant changes in terms of rights and social struggles in the 21st century. And also in terms of the very issues surrounding science. On the one hand, archaeology can remain closed in its idea that it is the science that studies the past through material culture, preferably ancient. And so she will be exempt from engaging in controversial issues. On the other hand, the archaeology may see material culture as a way of understanding certain aspects of the human being, both past and present. This will lead to an epistemological revolution and will allow archaeology to escape the old concepts. In the same way, it will make archaeologists necessarily involved in the issues of their time, leaving the grid to fight the struggles of the present.

About Artur:

Associate Professor of the Bachelor of Archaeology of the Federal University of Rio Grande FURG, Brazil.

Artur wrote Espaço e Arqueologia nas Missões Jesuíticas: o caso de São João Batista (2000) and O Mergulho no Seculum: exploração, conquista e organização espacial jesuítica na América Espanhola Colonial (2013). He is also the author of many papers and book chapters on these topics. His main research interest is in Latin American History, with an emphasis on the history of the Rio de la Plata region. His other research interests include evangelization in colonial Latin America, Jesuit missions, geohistory, cartography, space, patrimony, historical archaeology, and material culture. Artur is the head of the H.E.C.A.T.E.U’s Lab (American History and Cartography: Space, Territory, and Urbanism), where he leads several projects related to Jesuit cartography.

He is also the manager of the website

Questions from Gísli Pálsson in Iceland.

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UK > Iceland #worldinterview #12

UK > Iceland

Interviewee: Gísli Pálsson

What drew you to archaeology and what path did you follow in your archaeological career?

I came to archaeology rather late. After spending years working for a civil engineering firm on construction projects, I was gripped with an irresistible urge to tear things down. I still bear the signs of those early years, as I’ve found myself specializing in fairly technological and computational ways – GIS, survey, archaeoinformatics.

What difficulties do you think students face in pursuing a career in archaeology?

One of the most significant decision is whether to choose a well-established (but probably densely populated) subfield, which may lead to more job security in the long run if they get their foot in a door somewhere, or to go for an emerging subfield (or a non-existent subfield), which will probably give them the ability to impact the discipline more radically, while being a risky proposition job-wise, particularly in academia.

Do you think academic departments need to demonstrate ‘relevance’ to public audiences – if so what are the challenges?

I think the core practices of archaeology are very relevant to public audiences, but I also think archaeology has much more to offer beyond those practices. In my experience, the public are very open to creative archaeologies and more experimental applications of archaeological practices, but the issue is that getting funding for such practices seems much more difficult than getting funding for projects in line with how archaeology ought to be practiced. So the challenge, to me, lies in convincing those with the fingers on the purse strings that archaeology needs more leeway for experimentation, but that is not going to happen when most of the people in our discipline are perpetually suspended on a budgetary knife’s edge.

How do you see digital technology contributing to the interpretation and research agendas for archaeologists and anthropologists in the future?

Digital technology has contributed to archaeological interpretation for as long as digital technology has been around in the humanities. As far as I’m concerned, archaeology has always been at the forefront of adopting digital technologies in the context of the humanities and historical disciplines, and it will continue to do so.

About Gísli:

Archaeologist, into landscape, data, networks, creative sides to the profession, as well as some other things.

last paper:

Questions from Raksha Dave in the UK.

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Stuck at my Desk With a Packet of Jaffa Cakes

As has already been posted today, the osteo team from Cardiff University are currently out in Turkey, on site at Catalhoyuk and apparently for their day off are lounging by the pool, a particularly difficult task I imagine. As well as the bone-iologists, one colleague is in Iceland working on a site out there and another is currently excavating in Romania. Cardiff is seeming massively unappealing and rather dull at this point in time. Why a PhD in medieval and early post-medieval pottery from Wales seemed a good idea three years ago when I applied for the studentship here is beyond me.


Despite my jealous grumblings (mostly to myself as the post-graduate room is so quiet and now to you) this has been an informative, busy and exciting couple of years. Having the ability to spend three years on a subject you love is a luxury and one I keep having to remind myself of in the dark writing up stage. Post-graduate life here in Cardiff has been amazing fun and it is strange to think that that will all have to end once finished. It is quite difficult to watch others around you completing and passing vivas, which ultimately leads to a change in dynamic within the community you live and work in, as well as rely on, to provide support through what can be incredibly challenging years.


The post-graduate room here at Cardiff is central to the developing research community and it is where many a thesis has been written and are in the process of being written now. Friendships, relationships and collaborative projects are developed in this room, many of which last beyond the PhD timescale.


One collaborative project which has been recognised as important to all who spend time in this room is the Jaffa Cake challenge. We have sampled and tested the full range of Jaffa Cakes available, including the time old favourite McVities as well as the other supermarket alternatives. I’m afraid I don’t have any official stats and as the room is empty have not been able to call for a show of hands today on the matter, but we believe as a collective to have come to a conclusion on the perfect Jaffa Cake: Lidl’s finest Sondey Orange Jaffa Cake. It has the perfect balance of chocolate, orange and soft cake base, none of this slightly crunchy, could actually be stale, quality you often find with the branded variety.


I couldn’t imagine doing anything but archaeology with regards to a career and even though the last 6 months have been a struggle, my archaeological spirits have not been dampened, for at least I always know that the post-graduate room (even on a quiet day like today) can provide solace, a friendly ear – when people aren’t on amazing field projects – and a packet of Jaffa Cakes.



Colouring the Past

It’s a gray and rainy day in Reykjavík and I’m thinking of colour. Arrayed before me in the National Museum’s collections storage center are an array of jasper fragments from an excavation at Reykholt, an important regional center in western Iceland. Founded in the late 10th century, Reykholt became the center of a polity forged by Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s wealthiest and most powerful chieftain of the early 13th century. I was involved in the first years of the Reykholt Project in the late 1980s and was there briefly in its last days, in 2007. Excavations that I undertook at a small, non-elite farm about 10 kilometers away and at the site of one of Snorri’s rivals, a bit farther out, led me through a circuitous route to think about jasper, an iron-rich form of SiO2 that, like flint, chert and obsidian can be easily flaked into stone tools or used with steel to strike sparks for lighting fires. It’s this latter use that attracted the Vikings and their Norse descendants to collect, use and discard jasper at most sites. A quotidian and visually boring class of material culture, jasper fire-starters were, nonetheless, the matches in the pockets of Norse men and women and their distribution, use wear and trace element chemistry can be used to monitor the movement of people over both short and long distances (we’ve used neutron activation analysis to trace Icelandic jasper to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example).

But arrayed before me today is a puzzle. Due to its high iron content, jasper is most commonly red or ochre-yellow. Far less common are black, blue, or green colours. And yet here, from the ruins of a medieval church built at the site around 1150 and demolished around 1550 is a sea of green and greenish-blue jasper. More to the point, the wear patterns on it indicate that hardly any of these green and blue-green fragments were used for striking fires, although the few red jasper fragments in the assemblage- and all of the obsidian pieces-were used to make sparks. The question is, why were these green pieces brought to the site and why were they treated this way? Or, better, what did it mean to be “thinking green” in medieval Iceland? So far, the answer is looking far more complex, and far more interesting, than I’d expected.

Of these green stones, roughly 10% form a coherent assemblage of desilicified, soft pieces, light blue-green in color, that have been scraped and faceted with files, knives, or abrading stones. The actions taken on them are deliberate but their forms are each different, random and seemingly accidental. Their most likely explanation is that the objects in my hand are end-products of actions taken to obtain blue-green powder, and that was most likely intended for the production of blue-green or green ink, as Reykholt was a center of literary production through the Middle Ages. These humble pieces may, therefore, be our best material evidence for the action of clerics and secular writers at Reykholt, whose products include those of Snorri Sturluson himself, among them Heimskringla (the earliest history of the kings of Norway), the Poetic Edda (a manual of skaldic poetry and one of the main sources on Nordic pagan cosmography), and Egills saga (an important foundation of the Icelandic Family Sagas). Finding illuminated manuscripts in a collection of colored stones was the last thing I expected.

However, the majority of the other stones found in the fill and under the floors of this church are united simply by being green. Many are achingly beautiful jasper, like Song dynasty porcelain in color and texture, but were simply smashed into fragments to reveal the green interior and then discarded without any other traces of use. Another large group consists of small green pebbles, some of jasper and others of white chalcedony with a green surface rind formed from contact with iron-rich basalt in a reducing environment. From their surface contours, it is clear that some of these were collected from river or stream beds, others were obtained from eroded landscapes where they were faceted and worn by Iceland’s strong winds, still others were plucked directly from the roots of ancient volcanoes with basalt still adhering to their outer surfaces. An extensive survey of the region around Reykholt has shown that jasper of any kind is extremely rare there and nearly impossible to find in riverine, terrestrial or bedrock contexts. At Hestfjall, the nearest well-known jasper source, 30 km from Reykholt, red jasper is abundant. Although blue, green, and blue-green are present, obtaining it may require long searches, scrambles up vertical cliffs, or dangerous transects across steep and loose scree slopes. Bringing these simple objects to Reykholt, then, represents a considerable number of separate actions, undertaken in different places and variable settings, over a prolonged period of time, and potentially through a series of dangerous or at least difficult actions. Why? What was important about being green?

The answer may lie in the symbolic meanings of green and of jasper itself within medieval thought. Jasper was one of the twelve stones on the breastplate of Aaron, described in the Old Testament, and was among the foundation stones of the Celestial Jerusalem described in John of Patmos’ Revelation, and formed that metaphysical city’s walls. Numerous sources, from the Venerable Bede in 8th century England to Richard of St. Victor and Bruno of Segni, writing in 12th century France and Italy, make it clear that the term “jasper” itself was used to describe an opaque green or blue-green stone, not the more common red color that we associate with jasper today. Jasper was the symbol of faith and belief during this life, that, like green plants, grows and returns to life after hardship, never truly dying despite the troubles of earthly existence. Jasper was used, at times, as a symbol of Christ and, more frequently, as one of the symbols of Saint Peter…and the church at Reykholt was dedicated to Saint Peter.

An hypothesis starts to form. Are these green and blue-green pieces of jasper, gathered with difficulty from a potentially wide-spread landscape and deposited here in greater numbers than known anywhere else in Iceland, accumulated symbols of personal devotion? Are they materialized prayers to St. Peter, tokens of belief…or perhaps supports for belief under strain and supplication for his believed ability to turn away fever, to cure foot problems, to provide longevity, to aid harvests and harvesters, to provide support for fishermen, or to guide the souls of the deceased into heaven?

Two classes of stone objects, one used for pigment production and the other unused except for its acquisition, intentional destruction and sequestration within a church, are both joined primarily by color. Together, they suggest new approaches for understanding the pragmatics of religious practice in medieval Iceland, on the one hand, and the practice of illumination, on the other, in ways that could not have been expected from such humble remains.

Well, back to it! The rest of the assemblage awaits and with it opportunities to refute this emerging hypothesis or to find additional examples that may support it. Some days archaeology takes place in the field, others in the lab. This is one of those days. This weekend may have me scouring the landscape in search of new jasper sources…