The other side of the viva! And working on the Silk Roads

My day started early, checking over my notes for a PhD viva I was examining this morning here at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

I don’t need to go into much detail of the experience as the candidate has already posted his experience of the process below (see James Doeser’s post “Pass – no corrections!”). It was an interesting thesis, and as James said, we had a lively discussion about the data gathered, the approaches and the outcomes. Sadly we failed to live up to his pre-viva fears that it could be “At worst … an aggressive demolition of a new researcher by two senior academics with egos and reputations to protect.” Damn – will try harder next time!

Now I’m back in the office working on a thematic study of the Silk Roads for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments & Sites). It is a broad survey of the evidence for the Silk Roads between Asia and Europe through Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The aim of the study is to provide a platform to help the countries along the routes to develop a strategy for protecting, conserving and communicating this rich archaeology. In part it is hoped it will lead to multi-country nominations of sites (small as well as big) for the UNESCO World Heritage List, but mainly it is about sharing knowledge and experience amongst the countries. My role is to pull together existing information and synthesis this into a broad understanding of the routes and their impacts (great cities, the spread of religions, ideas and technologies, etc) – and the scale of diversity, change and adaption along the routes. It is a massive job (and a lot bigger than I’d planned it to be when I took the study on – but that is the fun of research, it takes you further and pushes you into new areas). The database behind the project has been assembled in a computer-based Geographic Information System (GIS), with a variety of maps, chronologies and information about places and empires. This will be distributed amongst the archaeologists working along the routes, but we also plan to make a lot of it available on the internet to everyone through Google Earth. I have a deadline for the draft report of the end of next week – so I need to get back to it!

However, some of the rest of my day will be spent organising things for an excavation, survey and site management project I run at Ancient Merv, in Turkmenistan (Central Asia). This is a long-running project on one of the great Silk Roads cities – in the 10th century CE Merv was perhaps the third largest city in the world! Today it is a World Heritage Site and managed by the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, who are our partners on the project. I’ll post up some info on the planning later today.

Tim Williams

Senior Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, UCL


Pass – no corrections!

Hello again. Well, let’s start with the basics: I passed with no corrections required. This is pretty much the best possible outcome from a PhD viva. First of all a few words about the process, then onto the flavour of our discussions.

I met with my PhD supervisor ten minutes before the scheduled start of the viva, we had a general chat about how the viva might pan out and he was kind enough to drop some heavy hints that things were likely to turn out well. I was quite nervous as I entered the exam room and introduced myself to the examiners. I knew their identities in advance and I knew one of them fairly well as he is an academic at the same department where I was studying. Their opening gambit was not “what do you think you have achieved?” or “what do you think is your original contribution to the field?” but “let’s start by saying that you have passed and we will not be asking you to make any further corrections”. What a relief! This instantly put me at ease and the rest of the viva was then a vigorous discussion about my research, my conclusions and the nature of archaeology and government. This might sound dull to some of you but I promise it is all really important stuff.

One of the difficulties I encountered while conducting my research was attempting to reconstruct the actual history of how certain pieces of government policy were put together. I attempted to do this through interviewing key people in those processes, going through archives and reading about previous attempts by historians and archaeologists to do something similar. How was I supposed to differentiate fact from fiction and triangulate these various sources of data? Honestly, I’m not sure if I managed to do that sufficiently but I managed to convince my examiners that I had done the best that anyone could do. Another issue that we touched upon was whether I had been able to get a comprehensive picture of how and why certain government policies came into being. Had I varied my source material enough? This was something that I had been conscious of throughout my research. The formulation of public policy (and this is true in the case of archaeology policy) is a fairly opaque process which eludes critical examination. Nevertheless, I once again managed to explain my efforts to my examiners who made helpful suggestions for further sources of evidence that I might want to consult should I choose to publish my research. So, although my research was not about the archaeology of a particular place at a particular time, or about the emergence of farming or human evolution, it did exhibit the characteristics of all archaeological research: I was having to work with framgentory remains of past human experiences and reconstruct them into a coherent narrative that sought to explain something about our place in the modern world. That is what archaeology is all about.

Enough philosophising… back to the viva… after a full 75 minutes I left the exam room with congratulatory handshakes from my examiners and a hefty slap on the back from my supervisor. It’s great to be at the very end of my PhD research, it’s been a hard slog at times with some serious bouts of intellectual insecurity but it has also been an amazing journey through the intersecting worlds of politics and archaeology. I have discovered new things, met some amazing people and hopefully made a modest contribution to human knowledge (wow, that sounds heavy). My research activities have helped me to get a really interesting job with the Arts Council that looks more broadly at the development of cultural policy in England. I’ll try and write a post about that at the end of the day. In the meantime, it’s back to the day job…