And ne’er the two shall meet: archaeological dissemination and the creative human mind.

Really, this is a ridiculous title because archaeologists are by their very nature creative people. We interpret the material record in order to make a connection with the past and, whilst the process of excavation is a very destructive one, when we interpret the data gained through the destruction of the archaeological record we are engaging in a fundamentally constructive activity. We construct pasts for ourselves. Note I use the word ‘construct’, not ‘reconstruct’. Excuse me whilst I digress into semantics for a moment.

I’ve always been wary of the word ‘reconstruction’. I’m sure that it has its place – reconstructions of objects and buildings are of course, completely legitimately named ‘reconstructions’ when we have an original to work from. I don’t like the idea of using the word ‘reconstruction’ in association with the past in general, however.  It suggests that the job of the archaeologist is to simply pick up pieces of the past and put them back together to make an original whole – a picture of the past; the past as a series of social, political, and economic entities. We can’t reconstruct something like that when we have very little idea of what it was like before its physical manifestations became a part of the archaeological record.

That’s really by the by, and whilst something deep within me longs to enter into the semantics of things, I don’t have the time. I can only sit in Starbucks without an Internet connection for so long before I completely lose my mind at the injustice of it all.  My point is that most archaeologists claim to ‘reconstruct’ and to ‘recreate’ the past, yet somehow manage to fundamentally refuse to be truly creative whilst doing it. I’ll return to this in a moment. First, some words on creativity, for it troubles me.

If you asked someone to say a few words on ‘creativity’ you might get responses like ‘creativity can’t be contained’ or ‘no art is truly original’ – these two contrasting ideas are utterly perplexing. Indeed they’re probably better off in a discussion on art history. My reason for bringing them up is that I wish to argue that whilst creativity is popularly seen as free and without confines, we surely must know that this cannot be true, because we all work within the parameters of our puny human minds. What we create is undoubtedly influenced by our own experiences, emotions and ethics.

So can the above be an excuse for archaeologists to sit back in their chairs, crack their knuckles, and heartily set upon writing up a piece of research in the same old fashion, following a set of rules and regulations and using the same old language? My argument is that it cannot, indeed it must not.

Whenever I have had conversations of this type with friends or my poor, long-suffering boyfriend, they have argued, ‘but that’s ridiculous! There must be some sort of peer-reviewing process or standardised practice. Otherwise any old idiot could write and publish any old drivel!’

It’s a very good point, but I just can’t get this pet peeve out of my head. I feel like there’s something wrong, that’s stopping us from moving forwards. I feel like I need to get to the root of the problem, because by finding out what it is that makes us do things the way we do them, and what is stopping us from changing, I can then make recommendations about how to move forward and make our methods of communication better*.

I haven’t yet said plainly what it is that peeves me about the way that archaeology is communicated, and that’s probably because I’m still trying to work it out. Every single heated, ever-so-slightly-tipsy conversation that I have in a higgledy-piggledy York pub brings me closer to it, but I’m not quite there yet. I know that a lot of it has to do with the way that archaeological narratives are approached, produced, and presented. Each and every time that I express my frustration on this matter, it comes out like an attack on proper academic conduct, which is not what I want to do. I am a self-confessed fancier of bibliographies, and I absolutely relish the writing of correctly structured and carefully argued essays, but it all feels far too practiced. I know that we follow an outline for academic writing for a damn good reason, and I am sure that I don’t need to explain it here, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m not sure if this is as much of a problem in other branches of the humanities related to archaeology. The prime concern of archaeologists is the creation of narratives, whereas historians already have narratives with which to work. Similarly, anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists are recounting anecdotal situations that they have experienced first-hand. Their narratives already exist. I think this makes it much easier for historians, anthropologists et al to write narratives rather than structured, analytical pieces of writing. This brings me back around to the topic of my first ever post on this blog: the distinct lack of prehistoric fiction.

Obviously ‘lack’ is not the correct word – that’s just my untamed, melodramatic side rearing her sequin-clad head – there certainly is good fiction set in prehistory out there (again, a topic for another post, or perhaps it’s time for me to construct a bibliography). But there is so much less of it than there are historic novels or novels on contemporary cultures. This has to have meaning somehow, and I wonder if prehistory just seems like too much of a challenge, or too much of a risk. Could being creative and taking leaps of the imagination just pose too much of a threat to the well-established academic? I’ve ranted and raved elsewhere about the inhibitions of archaeologists when it comes to imagination and creativity, but I can’t help repeating my earlier musings on whether it is a certain type of non-deliberate snobbery left over from processualist archaeology that is holding us back.

This post is already 1000 words and it’s been sat on my macbook, waiting to meet its fate for a good 6 hours, so I’m going to wrap it up here and treat it as an untied end to come back to. All I know is that as I think more and more about PhD applications for 2014, this is what I can’t get out of my mind.

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Thesis writing: the most vicious of circles.

I haven’t blogged, or read the blogs of people I follow for so long, so I thought I’d just pootle by and drop a thought or two.

My time recently has been consumed by a big life change including house moving and the reconsideration of my employment prospects, but all of that has had to go on the back-burner now, because it’s time to really start to write my dissertation.

I find myself engaging in this ridiculous and rabid circle of events daily. This is the sort of psychological process that has accompanied almost every essay or piece of written work that I’ve ever composed, but because this is my Master’s thesis and it’s the first time I’ve ever done my own primary research and real life has got massively in my way and waylaid the writing process, it seems amplified tenfold.

So my days currently look something like this:

8am: Wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day

9am: Around two hours of wonderful, optimistic productivity and a reasonable increase in word count.

11am: DISTRACTION! THE INTERNET! Something shiny! Facebook. TWITTER!

12pm: Guilt guilt guilt.

1pm: Lunch.

1.30pm: I KNOW! I’ll look for jobs so that I don’t end up having all my belongings repossessed when I fail to repay my ridiculous loan after graduation.

3pm: Utter despair and demotivation: there are no exciting jobs and I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.

3.30pm: BUGGER! Dissertation. Why aren’t I writing my dissertation?

4pm: Every word is agony…

5pm: Clearly it is time for dinner and the company of other human beings.

7pm+: Panic writing and low productivity.

At times this vicious circle amuses me and I recognise that this is the sort of battle that any academic engages in when grappling with their research, but at others I think this can’t be right, other people wouldn’t be stupid enough to put themselves through this – I must just not be cut out for this.

So I wonder, does anyone else have a similar vicious circle that they engage in when dealing with their own work? Any tips or advice? Just want to rant about your own writing process? I’m all ears!

Almost 12pm… time for a bit of guiltguiltguilt.

An MSc in Digital Heritage: contemplations on a personal future.

I can hardly believe that I’m in my final week of timetabled master’s lectures (and have under two weeks in which to finish my final summative assesments, oh god!) – the time has absolutely flown! I’m feeling very reflective about the whole experience, and whilst I’ve struggled at times, both with the content of my course when placed alongside my previous research interests and the simple case of balancing work and study, I wouldn’t change it for the world!

I’ve learned a lot about what the real world of Heritage is like, beyond the Universities. I’ve become more independent, and grown up a lot. But I think that most importantly, I’ve made contacts.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be involved in a hugely interesting project with the York Museums Trust, and last week the past few months of contemplation on the project came together as I interviewed a certain Mr. Lamplough on camera. Mr. Lamplough, now in his 70’s I believe, has donated a large and extremely important collection of Bronze Age objects to the Yorkshire Museum. These objects were retrieved from a series of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites across the North York Moors in a series of rescue excavations in the 1950s and 60s when Mr. Lamplough was a boy of around 10. The work was pioneering and of the utmost importance.  I will be blogging about the collection on the YMT blog and visual material from the interview will be pushed over the web over the next few months.

I’ve also been offered the opportunity to go and do some work on the ever-changing and often challenging museum at Çatalhöyük. This will happen at some point during the fieldwork season, and wouldn’t even be happening without the influence of my greatly admired supervisor, Dr. Sara Perry, to whom I am hugely grateful!

All of these opportunities have been amazing and eye-opening, and I really don’t know what to do with myself next (although I have an entire thesis to write before I can move on to the next adventure!). I have moments where I think oh god, what am I doing? I need to get out now before it’s too late! but I just know that it’s not over yet. I’m not done with archaeology yet.

I came into this course with a very simple aim: to equip myself with the qualifications necessary to get paid (ha!) work in a sector that I am passionate about, rather than end up doing work that will suck my soul out through any available orifice (I’m looking at you, retail). A group discussion via Google Groups between students on the second Cultural Heritage Management module at York has made it absolutely clear that almost everyone is worried, nay terrified, about finding permanent and stable work in the heritage sector. And I’m getting that itching feeling that I had at the end of my bachelors where I’m thinking I’ve come this far, why not just carry on!? I could be the first person with a Doctorate in the family!

I think if I do decide to attempt to get funding for a doctorate though, I need a good long time to evaluate just what I want to get out of it. The course I’m on now was a quick decision, and whilst it is one I don’t regret for a second – it’s brought me to a wonderful place –  it’s caused me to deviate hugely from my primary interests in archaeology. As I’ve learned and developed intellectually, I now find myself lost. I can’t remember what my original interests were in the first place (if I ever really had any!) and I’m pretty sure that they will have changed and morphed over the academic year.

To PhD, or not to PhD. That is the question.

I’ve recently been encouraged by a colleague and friend to apply for a funded PhD at his department. 

This is extremely exciting news, and it’s truly an honour to even be thought of, but I can’t help but feel a bit of apprehension. There’s my old friend, the Impostor Syndrome, and I often wonder how I even got as far as doing a masters (I suspect many of my A level teachers would be shocked to learn that out of my entire group of friends, I’m the one who’s been head-hunted for a funded doctorate!). I also wonder if I’d be able to handle 3.5 years of in-depth, solitary research. Having said that, I think one of the main problems I’ve encountered during my masters is the sheer amount of juggling I have to do with my subjects, writing essays on completely different topics at the same time, and fitting a part-time job in around it all. I suppose with a PhD I’d be studying broadly, but following my own interests and setting my own deadlines which I imagine would suit my learning style far better.

I won’t even go into the issue of finance and funding, because those are the woes of practically any archaeologist, but this is a very large factor in my considerations.

So I suppose I’m calling on people who are doing/have done PhDs and feel they have any advice. Is there such a thing as over-qualification? Do you think that doing a PhD could ever be a bad thing? Does anyone regret their decision? What would you say to your pre-PhD self, if you could?

 

The student life

This blog entry is brought to you from underneath over five layers of clothing. News flash: York is COLD a lot of the time!

It’s been quite some time since I visited WordPress. I’ve been rather caught up in life. The past month has been filled with enrolment and socialising and attempting to find my academic legs once again. I’m currently suffering through the somewhat severe symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, but am trying to convince myself that I’m not as think as I dumb I am and that I just have to get out and get involved in and around the archaeology department.

Needless to say my ambitions for creative writing have to be put on hold (sorry, NaNoWriMo, not this year!) as I concentrate on my studies. I still plan to use this blog to write about my experiences as an archaeology postgraduate at the University of York.

You can also follow me @laternosrsly where I tweet about archaeology and my mundane life intermittently. Disclaimer: there will be swears.

Now I must begone, for this was merely a performance of procrastination; I have got 5500 words worth of assessment to write by Wednesday!

Us and Them

As I continue to think about how I’m going to develop some sort of plot for this book of mine, I’m beginning to wonder about my original plans.

One thing I know for sure is that I want to write about the advent of farming. I want to consider the processes that might have been at play with the passing on of knowledge and skills that allowed people to keep domesticates. Old fashioned views see farming arriving in Europe from the Near East in the form of colonising cultivators, but we have to remember that some parts of the landscape were already heavily populated, and had been that way for tens of thousands of years! Almost immediately I had decided to write from the point of view of one of these indigenous cultures. I wanted to see how I would envisage them interacting with the people who knew how to raise animals and when and where to plant cereals.

However there is that age old concept of “us” and “them”. If I’m not careful I’ll find myself in that familliar “Dances with Wolves” scenario where the peaceful natives are disrupted in their harmonious lives by the incoming higher-level civilisation until one day two people think differently and unite their comrades in tolerance and equality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of story telling – in the last month alone I’ve been caught having a secret sniffle at Pocahontas during a particularly difficult hangover. I shan’t mention my reaction to Avatar… it was rather embarrassing.

One of the points I think I’d like to get across though is that interactions may not have been guarded or hostile; indeed they may well have been amicable. In some ways I am tempted to portray my hunter-fishers and my farmers as working together; trading food stuffs, material culture, even people. The stable isotope data from the Danube Gorges and indeed across much of Neolithic Europe often conveys a picture of patrilocality, with females entering the communities from outside of the region, or at least from a different social group who employed different subsistence strategies.

Having said that, a story needs intrigue and the reader needs, not necessarily to be able to take sides but to invest their time and emotions in a character or group of characters. Having clearly defined boundaries and roles for the characters can be a positive thing, especially if the story is taking on the nature of a parable.

On the lack of good prehistoric fiction

This is the first entry I will make in my shiny new blog, created on an impulse because of the huge amount of stuff banging about in my skull, which I think might be useful (if only to myself) when put into some sort of coherent prose.

Originally – all of about 30 minutes ago – my intentions were entirely academic, but I have a feeling that it would make for tedious reading and prompt abandonment on both my part and the parts of any potential readers. So here I will talk about my ventures into the world of academia and my currently unarticulated convictions about interpretation and representation in archaeology.

Perhaps the main reason that I suddenly feel the need to jot down thoughts and feelings on the subject is that I’ve decided I must write a book. It all started because of my never-ending and futile search for good prehistoric fiction. I can’t let go of this interest in Prehistory and, for all that I’ve enjoyed the past three years of reading scholarly papers on the subject, I just wish I could relax into a good bit of well researched and well written fiction that caters to my most passionate interest. My searches, thus far confined to Google and sites like goodreads.com and fantasticfiction.com, have turned up English and mainly French works written in the first half of the 20th century, and the odd, rather flimsy attempt at an empowering feminist saga.  Of course Jean M. Auel’s best-selling Earth’s Children books have been a huge inspiration to me and no doubt numerous others who have delved into prehistoric fiction. As yet they are the only examples of prehistoric fiction that are, despite several  reservations that I may outline in future entries, truly worthy of academic merit as well as being engaging fictional works.

With the development of post-processual archaeology, it has (relatively) recently been suggested that academic pursuits of the past in the form of fictional writing may well have a significant amount of scholarly merit. The 1999 volume by Mark Edmonds concerned with Neolithic life-ways in Britain is a prime example of such tentative advances towards story-telling as a form of communicating archaeological theory.

So if I can’t find it, I’m going to have to write it myself. What I want to create is a work of fiction, accessible to anyone with an interest in our human past, which is also acceptable as a work of informed intellectual enquiry. Even the academic claiming he or she is carrying out their research in a strictly scientific manner, after all, must admit that the prehistoric cultures after which they chase are almost impossible to truly know. All prehistoric archaeology is theory; unavoidably socially constructed and, for a large percentage of the time, entirely speculative. As someone who has dealt with the data and theories relating to prehistoric Europe, but is not inherently academic, I can truly see the worth of fiction as a form of archaeological interpretation.

Another reason for the creation of the blog is that I fully intend to continue on my path into the world of academic archaeology. I’m currently applying for the Digital Heritage masters course at York University, and if I manage to get a place then I’ll try to write about my experiences and opinions of various encounters I may have with all things archaeology and perhaps some things not.