Nothing Interesting This Year

Annoyingly, without connecting the two dates in my mind, I accepted an appointment for a terribly boring meeting that lasted all of the morning of the Day of Archaeology.  Most people I know try to do something interesting but much of the time spent by a local authority archaeology officer consists of meetings, staring at maps and trying to work your way around the acronym soup of life in local government.

First thing was off to English Heritage to discuss proposals for reorganising Archaeological Priority Zones (APZs – keep up!) or Archaeological Priority Areas or many of the other names that these float around on maps issued by local authorities buried under a multitude of other coloured and bounded areas with their own acronyms.  View the joy that is the Southwark adopted policies map here, APZs, as they are in Southwark, can be found by ticking next to Design and Conservation.  Patrick, at English Heritage, is doing some very good work looking over a number of the boroughs and considering where we know archaeology to be, where we can expect it to be found in the future and drawing logical areas to connect this on the maps.  My contribution to the meeting was to try and get the acronyms to become Areas of Archaeological Significance, to match up with the new emphasis on ‘significance’ in many planning documents.  Think about it for a while, I feel it is more memorable.

Imagine my joy on getting back to the office and finding out that an area action plan had passed its first hurdles.  The Old Kent Road Area Action Plan is beginning to move forwards.  Archaeological, this area contains some of the more interesting and significant archaeology within the borough, not least the remains of a mesolithic tool making site that is now under a B&Q, other interesting and enigmatic areas of prehistoric archaeology and the main road into London from the Kent ports through the Roman and medieval periods.  Hopefully we will have the opportunity to do a full assessment of the archaeology of this road and look at what is happening in its hinterland.  I feel this is incredibly petty but the acronym formed from the name of the document gave me the greatest joy O KRAAP!

Surveying the Present

Four years ago I was an environmental archaeologist focused on prehistoric peoples living in the Great Lakes and Northeast with plans to remain on the academic track. I specialized in research on how humans modified their environment through the analysis of microscopic plant remains. My layman’s description was that I looked at the burned remains of a prehistoric person’s dinner. Today, I’m an evaluator for the Institute of Museum and Library Services* and focus on the social impact of cultural organizations such as museums, archives, and libraries.

The obvious question is what does one have to do with the other? On the surface, not much. But I employ my training as an anthropological archaeologist almost daily.

I used to think about how prehistoric peoples used, modified, and moved around their environment. This involved consideration of local and regional environmental resources (water, raw materials, seasonally available food resources, etc.) and where, when, and how/if people accessed them. Now I consider why people are visiting museums and libraries and the resources available to them through these institutions. I think about how people move around a modern landscape (e.g. walking, biking, car, etc.), barriers or impediments that might affect their access to museums and libraries (e.g. safety concerns, cost, transportation, walkability), seasonally vs. year-round available programming (e.g. summer and other school breaks, services for retirees or unemployed persons), and local/regional issues of cultural significance. My conception of people and their environment has moved from a primarily natural environment to a primarily built one. The issues and questions I address in my current work are not ones unfamiliar to archaeologists either; it’s the tangibility that differs. It’s possible for me to collect information directly from the folks I’m studying rather than relying solely on the artifacts of their past activities**.

So instead of this:

Some considerations to think about moving around a primarily natural environment when thinking about prehistory

Some considerations to think about moving around a primarily natural environment when thinking about prehistory

I now think about this:

Some considerations for moving around a built modern environment.

Some considerations for moving around a built modern environment.

My archaeological training has also meant I’ve worked in the very kind of institutions my agency funds. Generally speaking I’m familiar with the processes, resources required, and the kinds of constraints cultural institutions face (e.g. limited budgets or staffing, space constraints, collections care, etc.). As an evaluator these issues are already on my radar when thinking about how best to implement evaluation methods, appropriate questions to ask, and relevant information to collect.

I may no longer be spending my days in an archaeological trench but the interdisciplinary training I received enables me to make connections related to policy and how people operate in and conceive of their world in ways that others might not.

*The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

**With the caveat that some historical archaeologists are able to do this as well

It’s viva day

Hello folks. This morning I have my PhD viva, so today is quite a significant day of archaeology for me.

A PhD is a postgraduate research degree that usually takes around three or four years to complete. In my case it has taken seven! (Mostly due to the fact that I have been working throughout that time.) The aim of a PhD is to produce a thesis of around 100,000 words in length that demonstrates the candidate’s ability to undertake independent critical research and makes an original contribution to knowledge in the field. The viva is the means by which PhD candidates and their work are examined. Today it’s my turn to go through this process. I have taken the morning off work (I am a researcher at the Arts Council) to come to the UCL Institute of Archaeology where I undertook my research.

I have been involved in archaeology since the mid 1990s and I came to London to do an undergraduate degree in archaeology in 1999. I haven’t stopped since! Over the years my research has moved from digging holes and examining artefacts to looking at the way in which archaeology connects with people’s everyday lives. My PhD research looked at government policy. Essentially, my thesis attempts to answer the question “why do we have laws that preserve some material remains of the past and not others?”.

The viva is at 10am and should last around an hour. There will be four people in the room: two examiners, my PhD supervisor and myself. I will have to defend the method, theory and findings in my research. The best kind of viva is a stimulating and challenging discussion between three researchers (the supervisor has to keep quiet!); the worst is an aggressive demolition of a new researcher by two senior academics with egos and reputations to protect. I expect that most vivas tend to resemble the former rather than the latter.

I will post again at lunchtime to let you know how I get on. Fingers crossed!