The annual conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group is one of the more unusual conferences in the field. And in the spirit of the event, I decided it would be more appropriate forego sequential narrative and treat the weekend as an assemblage, and a rather random one at that. This is in part inspired by a paper I went to where Fiona Coward explored the use of social networking programs to plot associations between burial groups in Palaeolithic and Neolithic graves. I thought the way she used networking systems made a lot of sense and I’m considering how to adapt it for my own use to plot types of hoards and their associations. By adapting the data used in the program, relationships can be plotted not only through their associations, but also temporally and geographically, as well as mapping the chaîne opératoire. She’s now working on modifying the program to interface with GIS, so it presents a realistic geographic relationship between groups, rather than straight lines.
The Road Trip
This was a road trip where Ryan, Toby, and I piled into Derek’s wonderful red VW Polo with the green door. Toby had been appointed to Twitter the entire event for Assemblage. So it began when we got on the road and continued to the cold end.
Various parts of Derek’s car froze at inconvenient times. But thanks to a cricket match we had a late start. That resulted in the sun having extra time to thaw the boot, so we didn’t have to travel all the way to Bristol with our luggage in our laps. On the way back it was the lines for the windshield washer fluid that froze. Apparently this never happens in Britain, and so parking lots were filled with people going back and forth to the coffee shop, getting hot water to pour on their windscreens. Derek was cleverer than that and used the hot water to thaw the lines, which also unfortunately involved him siphoning the washer fluid to get it started. He figured it would take about four minutes for the fluid to freeze again, and despite trying to keep pumping it to keep the lines free, the water still froze. I neglected to mention that the truck stops were stripped of any antifreeze or washer fluid. Water from the coffee shops was the only sources for fluids. We still had cups of hot water, so Derek rolled down the window, threw water on the windscreen, and then turned on the wipers. It worked well except for the water that flew back in his face. At various points through the trip, I wondered what would happen if the majority of Roger’s PhD students were wiped out in a tragic auto accident.
There was singing, dramatic reading of abstracts in Russian accents, mince pies that contained no mince (but were good nonetheless), and the comfort that no matter where I go in the world, truck stops are all the same. There will always be copies of Auto Trader and men’s magazines, various bizarre car accessories, bad coffee and overpriced snacks.
Observations and Conversations
“Children are the new gender” as gender studies are waning as a subject for archaeological theory, studies of children are coming to the fore.
In discussing archaeology and memory, it was mentioned how Roy Batty’s speech in Bladerunner can be seen as an archaeological statement, and how we too have seen things that others wouldn’t believe.
The cost of twenty-five beers = the cost of one year’s subscription to Antiquity.
I seemed to have developed a sense of bravado that I don’t recall having had previously, and it’s getting worse. Perhaps it was fuelled by the fact that I had Jessie’s membership, and so I had her name on my namebadge. I could act up as much as I wanted and give her all the blame. On Friday afternoon there was a session about schemes that combined art and archaeology. Here professional artists described their work, and in some cases, how they included the public to join in the creation of works of art. I was becoming increasing uncomfortable listening to people from a world I used to move in, with its edge of self-importance and the emphasis on the quantity of grants one gets. The session ran long and there was only time for a couple questions. I cruelly shot for their weak spot and asked, “By having workshops where public actively participates in creating works of art, how does one define who is an artist and who isn’t?” The one answer I recall in the flustered response was that it was a matter of consensus; if enough people call you an artist then you are one. The time ran out and I think many were relieved to be away from that question. If I’d had a follow-up, I would have asked how one is defined as an archaeologist. That one would have gone much easier. Archaeologists have a far different view of their profession and are not nearly as exclusive or defensive. Archaeology is a working class profession. Working class artists are craftsmen.
But what did they say in these papers on art and archaeology?
James Dixon asked whether art was thought about enough, or if it was thought about too much, and what is good art anyway? At the turn of the century artists went to exotic lands in the search for primal art. Then in the 1960’s the ethnographers took over, changing the interpretation from an artistic view to one that was a scientific view. He felt that archaeologists need to ask more about art, is it good? And why? I would wonder what barometer we could use to decide what was considered “good” in past societies, and if “good” art was at all the intent of prehistoric people in the first place. He did place good art in a category that was one that included participation, outreach, and understanding, but that the act of being artistic obscures what art is. The act of participation becomes more important than the piece produced. He ended with two ways for us to look at art: That we need to be less accepting of art, and that artists should be treated as grown-ups. This made me recall the uncomfortable part of being a part of the art world. Would any other profession be cast in this sort of light? Would anyone say that archaeologists, engineers, or doctors need to be treated as grown ups? Artists are always “the other”. As if they were struck by the gods at birth and given talent that others were denied. In a large part it is the fault of artists, who for generations have built the stereotype that theirs is a refined and hierarchical world that few may understand. They are above craft and technology. To paraphrase Robert Pirsig, it could be a job for archaeologists to search for the point where art and technology diverged.
Next Paul Evans looked at various types of participatory art forms, from a project where people planted 7,000 oak trees, to prehistoric stencilled hands in caves, to a recent workshop in Rumania where people stencilled their own hands onto a mural. He recommended a recent (2009) book by Dennis Dutton: The Art Instinct. He described it as a Darwinian interpretation of art, sequential art as storytelling, and art as cross cultural understanding. It’s one that I’ll look for and I would be interested in contrasting its view of sequential narrative with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
Eva Bosch showed a beautiful time-lapse video of how the sun travels through a room in Catalhöyük, functioning not only as a sun clock, but also as an afternoon puppet theatre! She spoke about how art really could only be studied live and in situ, and that drawings can never convey an accurate copy of an artefact. Even a camera produces a dead image.
Papers about creativity were for the most part held the next day in the Bronze Age craft session. Again, this emphasises the divide between art and craft, although the division of having creativity and innovation as part of the craft session is an interesting note. The art programs we saw dealt with Palaeolithic and modern western art with a more art historical approach. But it’s as if once technology advanced beyond a certain point, there was no more art, and from that point prehistory is filled with craft. Today metalwork is not art unless it’s a sculpture. Jewellery and functional items don’t qualify as art. Textiles, woodwork, and pottery also suffer the same designations. Are Neolithic cup and ring carvings art or mere designs? What about the carved stones at Newgrange? If an object is interpreted as having a ritual function, is it still art? Would modern artists say that the Neolithic is a phase in which humans moved from being artists to being craftsmen? In the modern world art and craft are neatly divided, but what about in the distant past? This division between art and craft is a modern western construct that should be used with extreme caution when trying to interpret prehistoric art and does play into various areas such as the interpretation of artefacts and designations of hoard types.
And books, there are always too many good books at these things. Oxbow Books had some wonderful deals. So did BAR. Ryan managed to get to them first, while I plundered Oxbow. We both did well, but took serious hits to our budgets. I will probably regret not picking up the copy of the reports on Fiskerton and a couple other books, but then I concentrated on ones that were marked down severely and wouldn’t be there for a second chance. The others I let go might be available through the library.
At the last minute I broke down and bought a copy of Tim Taylor’s latest book, The Artificial Ape. So far it’s more recreational reading for me than anything else. But I know eventually there will be a discussion on technology that will make me fill the book with scribbled post-it notes.
We stayed at the Bristol Backpacker’s Inn. Very nice, with a 24 hour pub in the cellar, and the most wonderful showers I’ve enjoyed in years. The bed was extremely comfortable, too. And heat! Glorious heat! I woke up sweltering under the thick duvet. The downside was that they had the worst coffee I have ever experienced in my life and the dartboard had only one dart.
This was probably the most exciting part of the conference for me. Holger Lonze of Umha Aois conducts two week casting workshops in Ireland using Bronze Age technology. People who join in work with a mentor as they get their feet on the ground and for two weeks an international community gets together to explore sustainable metallurgical practice. It is living experimental work that investigates environmental, economic and social development. Could this resemble seasonal exchange sites such as the Meare Villages and Runnymead? But this is more specialised. He was one of the few people who understands that casting is a fraction of the time that is required to produce a finished metal object and the workshops seek to find ways to design castings to minimise finishing tasks, such as removing sprues. The workshops provide the opportunity to live and move in the context of primitive metalwork. He described a brilliant recipe for mould making, but had a problem with cracking crucibles. As soon as I could I spoke to him about exchanging recipes for moulds and crucibles, and finding out how I could join in. Later I dragged him over to meet Roger. We spent a good part of the evening talking about metallurgy, practice, casting techniques, sailing, and the beauty of using blowpipes to skim charcoal and dross off the molten bronze before casting. Holger was glad to hear about my work on recycling and tin loss.
The Bristol Accent
I spend almost all my time in the north and so was confronted with the Bristol accent for the first time. Before I ever came to Britain I was aware of the socio-political aspects of accents here and try to pay attention to what’s conveyed by them. But when asking where to find the ladies room, I found myself staring at the woman giving me directions. I’d never heard anyone speak like that before. As the weekend went on I became fascinated by hearing everyone’s accent. Derek explained to me later that the actor who played Long John Silver in Treasure Island used a Bristol accent for the role and the association between Bristol/West Country accents and pirates has been cemented ever since. It does sound a bit like a celebration of Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Back to the Bronze Age
I was looking forward to Saturday’s first session not only because it was chaired by Joanna Sofaer, but also because it centred on Bronze Age craft.
There were interesting contrasts in the papers, bringing up debate about the dividing line between innovation and creativity. After the previous evening, I felt as if I was back in my comfort zone.
Lise Bender Jørgensen spoke about how skills are passed from one generation to the next. In doing work following Helen Wallaert’s 1999 studies of village pottery production, she learned that there was little verbal communication, and that skills were learned by sensual observation, not only watching, but listening, touching and physically connecting with the object. The only verbal communication would be harsh criticism. There was no room for innovation. Innovation was seen as an error. Tradition and exact replicas were emphasised. She included an anecdote about a masters class with Pablo Casals, in which he had a student repeatedly copy his performance of a piece, until the sound and phrasing were exact. When the student had perfected Casal’s technique, Casals launched into variations. It was only when the student had accomplished this and mastered his instrument that he could go on to improvise. She noted that the same processes were used to teach weaving. It was interesting to learn that Bronze Age textiles were high quality with little variation, but Hallstatt textiles showed variation and creativity.
Sarah Coxon had a different view of creativity in the archaeological record and asked if creativity was a psychological or socio-cultural phenomenon. Creativity and innovation are linked, but they are not the same thing, and by focussing on tradition and social stability we ignore the roles of creativity and innovation in shaping material culture. By concentrating so much on typologies and sequences, we frequently ignore singular items that represent a one-off product. By ignoring these we limit our understanding of material culture and miss the opportunity to witness innovation and the process of creativity.
Joanna Sofaer spoke briefly about the Creativity Project and the Archaeology of Craft, identifying high quality objects as being designed to show skills. The craft is in the making of the object, a verb rather than a noun. I will be interested to find out more about this project.
Sophie Bergerbrant’s paper was about defining craft and how craft work is a collaborative process. Using linen production, she described how it involves multiple skilled people to produce cloth, following the chaîne opératoire from the people who grow flax, to those who ret it, prepare it, dye it, spin it, and weave it into finished cloth. In addition, textiles are an often ignored material that gives insight into past societies. While wool textiles could be produced by an unsettled populace, vegetable fibres are the product of a sedentary society.
Rob Lee spoke about woodcraft and metallurgy as craft. Before a craftsman can begin any project several decisions have to be made: the selection of materials, tools, and in the case of woodworking, the particular type of wood and its condition. He noted that woodworkers in the past would not necessarily use types of wood that were easily at hand, but went to lengths to obtain the right type of tree, and of the right age. But even though wood is worked into other objects, the need for tools facilitates specific tools to be made. Fragments of a saw blade represent communications between the woodworker and the metallurgist to design tools. The depth and spacing of the saw teeth indicated specific uses for the saw. Details that would have had to have been worked out between the craft workers. Wide scale variations in tools indicate a range of techniques and materials. Of note was the use of a ridge stop in chisels. It would appear that a ridge stop would be useful to keep the woodworker’s hand from sliding down, but some ridges are too small, and must serve another purpose. That purpose, even if it is unknown to us represents communication between craft workers working in different media.
Helen Loney explored innovation through negotiation. While repetitive training and practiced skill trains the body, this type of practice makes it difficult to change styles. This is compounded when considering complex objects (wheels were one example) might have more than one creator, making collaboration a necessary part of the process. She pointed out the reciprocal relationship between metallurgists and woodworkers. In creating objects of multiple materials, they would not only collaborate on the creation of the object, but also collaborate on designing the tools needed to execute it.
Expanding beyond the usual definitions, Rhiannon Pettitt explored the question of how craft is defined, and if cremation could be considered a craft.
Roger and authenticity
The final day had more theoretical based papers than earlier. And the final session I went to concerned authenticity and archaeology. It was asked what role experts should play in democratising community heritage. Don Henson spoke about how the past is represented at Southwark and pointed out that heritage – what is handed down - is not a thing, but a relationship, and that this relationship is key.
Roger was the final speaker. I was disappointed that Toby was also speaking at the same time and couldn’t hear his paper, too. The abstract Roger submitted was daunting and we wondered how he would present something so abstract, moving from Postmodernism, Heidegger, to the use of authenticity to guide practice, and challenge the way in which archaeology is presented. He began with describing a friend who had embarked on his own journey of self discovery, travelling through Britain and exploring heritage sites and archaeology. What he found were rigid interpretations and authoritarian control. He rejected academia, but despite Roger’s association with it, they became friends. On one occasion Roger had the opportunity to smelt iron at a music festival that was located in a recreated medieval village. It was there that the young man declared that this was an authentic experience. As far as archaeology went, it was about as inauthentic as it could be. A prefab concrete Iron Age furnace in a prefab medieval village during a modern music festival… But yet there was engagement, practice, and an understanding the processes and movement that were part of a metallurgists life in antiquity. There were opportunities to explore, examine, experience, and ask questions that were never available on the signboards at heritage sites. He asked “can the idea of humanness be used as a moral imperative which guides practice” and how humanness could become central to archaeology and resource management.
TAG produces more questions than answers. I came away enthusiastic about contacts I’d made, things I’d learned, and a new energy for my own work. There are so many things to do and so little time. I felt ready to get back home and get back to work. Well, after a bit of a rest.
The quiz and Party
One of the features of TAG is the quiz and the Saturday night party. We tanked at the quiz. Horribly. The first prize was a subscription to Antiquity. That we felt was patently unfair. The losers should get the subscription since it was obvious they hadn’t had the opportunity to read the current issues as thoroughly as the winners.
The party was held in the union pub and ballroom, that had a copious dance floor. There was a glam rock band and a light show, but everyone save two women dancing up front stood stock still holding their beers, watching the band. The bar area was packed and people there were moving from conversation to conversation. I was introduced to many people, shouting above the din of the music or the din of voices. Curiously, as the night went on the beers got cheaper. We were all annoyed at having to pay £3 for a pint, but by midnight the price was eventually reduced to £1. Afterwards several of us moved on to The Woods, a pub on the way back to the hostel. The place was packed, but I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a bottle of Anchor Steam. It was a bit of the homeland for me. Roger and I shouted into each other’s ears for a bit until everyone decided to head home, but not before indulging in the ritual kebab.
There were scattered papers on Italian archaeology that interested me, including ones on the Terremare and the Bronze Age. The first one I saw was on the influence of Marxist communism and the intellectual left on academic archaeology. The author moved between the changing politics, but did explain the background of Italian archaeology beginning with Pigorini’s iron fisted control of the field and the various schools of thought that followed him. As in Germany, archaeology was co-opted during the Second World War, but not as disastrously. The post-war political environment didn’t help reshape Italian identity, and the country was divided between the Catholic right and the communist left, with archaeology still rather bruised from being used as a political tool from the 1860’s onwards.
A nice quote that I hadn’t heard before was that in 1937 Patroni (a member of the Fascist party) declared the Terremare culture as the “rudest of communists” and that they were incapable of being the precursors of Roman civilisation, as Pigorini had postulated. Italian archaeology has had constant growing pains but while current thought views the past as a Marxist system, it was a modified Marxism that never resembled that of the Soviet Union’s version.
In the Bronze Age crafts session, Paola Bianchi explored how metallurgy was practiced in Bronze Age villages, including spatial organisation, and the relationship between the village and the metallurgist (a subject close to my own heart). Using 40 sites, she plotted population increases and used pottery sequences to develop chronologies. She noted that there was a significant reorganisation of villages between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Earlier in Beneceto, metalworking was done indoors, where in Poviglio there were small outdoor production sites. Later, both textiles and metallurgy were practiced together in specifically designed buildings. I was interested to note that they found that ore was smelted in the same crucibles as were used for casting. It made me feel good to hear new work in Northern Italian Bronze age studies. The Terremare have a fascinating material culture and I look forward to hearing more.
The programs in general
TAG runs several simultaneous sessions, so it’s impossible to get to more than a third of them. I’d hoped to duck out of some sessions to quickly take in another paper (I did so want to hear about the Broadward Hoard), but the scheduling was not clear enough to make it easily understood when events were happening. Still, there was great variety and discussion. There were some that I find difficult to describe or discuss, such as Melissa Beattie’s PhD examining a memorial to a fictional TV character. This was her first year presentation, so she hasn’t gone beyond gathering initial data.
Lack of sobriety
It’s a conference, and an archaeological conference. That it is a theoretical archaeological conference ups the ante by quite a bit. We got a slightly late start because of the cricket match, and some side trips to pick up flyers and a passport, so we were keen to get moving. Toby was wise and brought the mince pies to share. We stopped once for coffee and a snack around noon, but other than that we drove straight through. Once we dropped off our stuff and got to the conference, we plunged right into the presentations. Having skipped lunch I thought it would be a good idea to get dinner before we went to the wine reception. We thought about that as we wandered to the students union (Some distance away from the building where the conference was being held, although we did take a rather circuitous route). The consensus was that students unions always have food and we could eat there. Unfortunately not at Bristol’s students’ union... There was a shop where we could buy some pot noodles, but since there was no way to cook them, the thought of crunching them down didn’t sound very appealing. We are all old enough to know that it’s not a good idea to start an evening of drinking after not eating all day, but somehow that logic escaped us. Somewhere in my nutrient-deprived brain, I recalled that I have been putting on too much weight, and missing a meal might help in the weight loss department. Despite that I was able to have intelligent conversations with friends and colleagues, and enjoy the usual networking that goes on.
The wine ran out somewhat early and then we were faced with the cash bar. After a round or two there, the party moved on to a pub. I abandoned my friends for a bit to sit with Parker Pearson because he bought the last of the mince pies and offered them to us (the only food to be had). Mike is still convinced that I am a masters student.
Pubs are open much later than in Sheffield. This is my excuse for not having a good handle on the time. At some point we decided to head home. Originally this involved a plan for a cab, but first we went in search of food. There was a small grocery where Toby seriously considered a banana, but then Derek steered us to a kebab van. Note that kebabs in Bristol are much more like the gyros I’m used to in the States with less meat and more lettuce, tomato, onion, etc. Not realising we were just uphill from the hostel, we took a cab home. Then we went to the cellar pub to round off the evening for a game of dart.
Amazingly I woke up at 8:30 the next morning and was in reasonably good shape. Derek is right. Kebabs before bed are a magical thing.
Bristol, the buildings and the mineral collection
The university building where the conference was held was a magnificent Victorian Gothic Revival building, full of stained glass, minutely detailed woodwork, and ornamentation. At times I couldn’t help staring at the ceiling or the coats of arms on the walls. It’s designed to impress and it does. Why can’t we have a Twenty-first Century Victorian Gothic revival full of craft and attention to detail? Crenulations wouldn’t hurt either.
The building also hosted a mineral collection. Just past the reproduction of a Camarasaurus leg. It was a nice collection, including many cut gems, and minerals of the Mendips (reminding me that once again I was within shouting distance of Meare, but with no way to get there…).
Mike Woods, Kibworth and cold
Friday night, the documentary filmmaker, Michael Woods did a presentation on his series, Story of England. I had seen the series, and enjoyed it (and recommend it to anyone who enjoys history or archaeology), especially how he engaged the entire city in doing archaeology and research. But towards the end he spoke about older adults recalling how tough things were in their youth, and how he was amazed by their stories of waking up to find frost on the inside of their windows! Toby and I looked at each other. Apparently he hadn’t had the same grad student experience that we were enjoying.
Still, the series is worth watching, following the place from it’s earliest material culture into historical times and on up to recent history.
Around the middle of December I become ill at ease, irritated and depressed. My subconscious mind blocks the reason, but I soon remember that Lee’s birthday is on the 19th. The best way I've found to cope with it is to surround myself with friends and drink heavily until I find myself back in balance again. Most of my friends have no idea of what’s going on, or even that I am going through this. TAG was the perfect way to find my rudder again and move forward with my life. I feel recharged and ready to implement what I got out of the conference.
 I noticed that the artists tended to mention their supporting grants during their presentation. Unless there is a specific reason to do so earlier, archaeologists will mention grants on the last slide as part of their thanks to all who contributed to the project. It’s a small observation on part of how a group validates their work and its worth.