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.

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.

Naming names

This blog is turning out to be very useful for networking. It’s surprising the people who’ve found me through this thing. It has also proven (as I suspected would be the case) that I am devastatingly ignorant on the subject of prehistoric fiction and indeed literature in general. But that’s okay; I’m here to learn. I’ve been pointed in the direction of what promise to be some interesting reads, including a graphic novel!

I thought I’d talk a bit about issues surrounding terminology. This is something I touched on briefly in my previous post when I mentioned that it has been argued that “transition” is an inappropriate word to describe the period of change between Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The evidence almost always suggests that the process was much more complex than a quick, clean change brought about by a “Neolithic Frontier” – yet another term that has brought about extensive discussion. Archaeologists often continue to argue that the terms “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic” are unsatisfactory, but I fear that we’re too late to change that. Those particular terms are here to stay.

I’d also like to consider the sorts of terminology and language that authors chose to use in their writing. One of the first problems I’m encountering as I think about starting to write is simply how to go about naming any characters I might come up with! I’ve seen some authors making up their own names. Another popular route seems to be to follow the Native American approach and go for names reminiscent of dear old Jaguar PawPersonally I think that I’d be inclined to make up my own names. I find that although many cultures often give their children names that mean something in their language, I’m distracted by reading English words as names. I often find some of them rather laughable as well, which stops me from truly engaging with the characters and scenarios in which they find themselves.

Then there’s the issue with the names given to roles and positions within society. What do we call the leaders, the husbands and wives, the spiritual leaders? In archaeology it’s important to try and come up with the most impartial and neutral language. Personally I am forever running from westernised ways of thinking and writing. I think the number one rule when attempting to envision our past is to remember that the way we see our world could be infinitely different from the way that our ancient ancestors did.

Of course when writing fiction for a much wider audience than just archaeologists, who sympathise with such agonies, allowances must be made. The characters must be relatable and the situations understandable. I think that plot would not be the main issue here – in some ways humans are very simple, and I think that we have probably been telling stories in a similar fashion from the very beginning – there will always be accounts of “good” versus “evil”, forbidden love, parables and myths with some sort of moral lesson.

But is it really appropriate to call a Neolithic leader a King or  a Lord? Or a Mesolithic spiritual specialist a Shaman? The former, to me, smack of far too feudal a system. The latter is a specialised term that was originally used to refer to the spiritual guides of nomadic groups in the Arctic Circle, who were believed to have had access to the spirit realm through entering states of altered consciousness (by getting high as freaking kites), but has become widely used in anthropology, history and archaeology.

I feel like perhaps the best approach, then, would be to come up with more new names rather than re-using English ones that have hundreds of years of socio-political background and possible connotations.

It’s always very easy to get caught up in these issues. I have fallen victim to such discussions in so many of my previous written assessments. I would start an essay by defining the subject, and then confronting the inevitable issues with terminology in the subject and, without realising it, have wasted half of my word count on a tangent. If we spend too much time discussing the intricacies of terminologies, are we defeating the point of archaeological enquiry? Ultimately we want to find out what the hell people got up to, not what words are most appropriate to describe them! But to make a piece of prose enjoyable it must be written in a way that involves the reader, rather than bringing questions into their minds, so perhaps in fiction these issues remain important.