Sunday, 26 June 2016

We are European Archaeologists

We have just come to the end of our first week of digging here in Casa Bastione. The excavation is going really well, the students are starting to get the hang of things, and we’ve cleared and sieved most of the topsoil, ready to get started on the archaeological layers next week. The great thing about working in this part of Europe is that even the topsoil is full of archaeological material. We’ve already got bags and bags of pottery and bone, and the occasional lithics and some fragments of Byzantine glass. Even though this material is not in its original context, it’s great for helping the students to learn how to spot things, and the feeling that you are actually finding stuff rather than just sieving sterile soil. Of course, the mood on site has shifted noticeably over the past couple of days. I never get into politics in this blog, but it would be impossible not to mention the fact that we are here in Sicily, working with a British (including English and Scottish students!) and Italian team, with a German postgraduate student supervisor. We all see ourselves as European, as well as our individual nationalities. Now we face the prospect that next time we work here, if that even happens, most of us will need a visa, and some of us could lose our jobs and/or have to leave the place we have lived and studied for 10+ years. We can no longer apply for funding with our European colleagues, can no longer bring their students to the UK for training, or send our students to Europe. Things which benefit all of us in so many ways, archaeologist or not. Everyone is so sad and frustrated; we all feel like we are losing a huge part of our identity. Especially here in Sicily, one of the poorest parts of Europe, which has benefitted so much from European funding to improve the infrastructure and quality of life, where the European flag is flown alongside the Sicilian and Italian. It has many parallels with poorer parts of the UK which have received the same funding.

The mood is a little better today after our visit to the wonderful Agrigento (Valley of the Temples), an ancient Greek colony and UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates to the 6th century BC. As we are all archaeology students or teachers, we get to visit the site for free – a wonderful perk of Italian heritage. The scale of ancient Greek monuments is amazing. It never ceases to amaze me what humans have achieved in the past, such a long time ago yet they were building things just as impressive as anything we can build today, and with much less advanced technology. There is something also quite eerie about wandering through this place, a real sense of a vanished civilisation. Not too much to say today related to geoarchaeology, though later this week I will hopefully get to write something about the local geology and the different building materials that were available to people. A lot of it is sandstone, which we also have on site at Casa Bastione – in fact, the sandstone cliffs just behind the site were utilised in prehistory for human burials!

What do archaeologists do on their days off? Visit more archaeology!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Fieldwork in Sicily - Case Bastione

I’m sitting here writing this on my laptop, on the patio of a rustic farm villa, with a lovely view of the mountains and checkerboard fields, sipping an espresso. Actually, I’ll probably be posting it at a later date, given that there is no internet up here in the lovely quiet hills, no sounds apart from the odd bleating goat and chirping swallow. Yes, it’s the best time of the year again; fieldwork time! I’m allowed to gloat at these surroundings, I’ve endured everything from 2 months sleeping on a floor with no mattress to 3 weeks with no electricity or running water. That means getting washed = a bucket of cold water over the head. But not this year! This year I’m working at a site called Case Bastione in central Sicily. I’m here as a geoarchaeology specialist, but also as a supervisor for our students from Newcastle University. The project is run by Italian archaeologist Enrico Giannitrapani, along with Newcastle’s Andrea Dolfini, and dates from the early Copper Age to Bronze Age, with some later Byzantine/Medieval stuff as well. I’ll write more about the site itself in the next few days, as I learn about it myself!

Having spent the best part of 10 years going to hot and dry places every summer, Sicily is more like the ‘fieldwork’ I’m used to, in a way that working in the UK is not. I think what I mean is that there’s ‘fieldwork’, and there’s ‘travel’. Until 2013 I’d always experienced the two as a combination. In contrast, my recent work in Orkney is fieldwork, but doesn’t feel like travelling; the weather, food, culture, the daily routine, are pretty much the same as home. Working in Sicily is very different from working in the UK. I’m definitely the sort of person that likes the heat, though this week we’ve been sitting between 25-30 which is pretty cool for this time of the year. And oh the food! Needless to say, the catering has been pretty amazing. We’re staying in the small town of Villarosa, and our pottery specialist has family connections with a wonderful local restaurant. In terms of digging, it feels very familiar here. In terms of the sediment and environment, it’s quite similar to the near east. There are lots of dry, dusty deposits, and so full of bone and pottery (though to be fair, in terms of UK archaeology, Orkney is about the only place where you’ll get close to this level of finds!).

This is the first time I’ve been on fieldwork where I’ve been independently in charge of a process, rather than just popping in to take samples as is usually the case. It’s funny how one day you wake up and realise that you actually know what you’re talking about.  I can even teach people how to do this thing, and direct groups of people to do this thing more efficiently! For the past few days I’ve been overseeing the sieving of all the topsoil, along with Newcastle PhD student Raphael Hermann. Not the most exciting of tasks in the grand scheme of things, but it’s been surprisingly good fun. It feels so exhilarating being back in the field, and for many of the students here, this is their first ever experience on a real dig. Their enthusiasm is great to see, and even a bit contagious. I can’t remember the last time I got excited about finding badly eroded bone or a random potsherd from a huge mound of topsoil, but hearing the excitement when someone finds said bit of bone and pot, and watching as they begin to see the difference between worked flint and random rocks, you’re reminded that this is actually quite cool. That being said, it would be more cool to get through the topsoil as quickly as possible so we can get onto the really exciting archaeological layers!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jobs before academia

I came across this article ages ago about jobs academics did before they became academics, and have been meaning to write something about it, but the semester has been so very very busy that I haven't had a chance. Having just handed in what I hope is my last lot of marking before I'm off on fieldwork next week, I thought I'd sit down and do some reminiscing.

My early adventures in the world of work. My very first job was as a assistant at an amusement arcade in my hometown of Newcastle. It was so monotonous and very depressing, spending the whole day handing out change to people that they would then just put into slot machines. I always knew I wanted to go to university, but that experience really reminded me that I would never be happy doing something 'normal'. It was the summer before I was about to head off to university, and I worked really hard at that job, saving up enough money to buy myself a desktop computer that I could take with me. I remember it well; it was the cheapest computer in the shop, and it cost my entire summer savings of about £800. I paid for it in cash! Ah, the wonderful Mac laptop that I could (almost) buy for that amount these days.

When I was at university I had two jobs, even though we were told we were not allowed jobs (I'm surprised to see this is still the case at Oxford even today, 'term time employment is not permitted except under exceptional circumstances'). But hey, I was poor and needed the money. I am proud of the fact that I never used a credit card my entire time as an undergraduate thanks to those jobs (that all went quickly downhill when I decided to do postgraduate degrees). My term time job was bar staff/cloakroom assistant at the Zodiac night club (now an O2 Academy). I can still pour a pint of Guinness and draw a shamrock in it. And I can pour shots and wine measures by eye. Valuable skills! I also got to see a lot of bands for free, which was fun. I much preferred being on cloakroom duty. After the initial rush of the evening, I could just sit there and get on with my reading and weekly essay assignments. It wasn't the most pleasant of jobs; I got threw up on once, and being sober around very drunk people all the time did not mesh well with my shyness.

St Hughs College Library (photo from website)
When it wasn't term time, I worked as a library assistant for my college library, which was much more pleasant. That was my favorite job ever. In fact, if I hadn't become an academic, I would have loved to be a librarian. There were hardly any students around as it was the holidays. Just me and the handful of other shy, quiet types who couldn't afford to go home, and stayed and worked in the library instead, under the instruction of then librarian Deborah Quare. Our main task was to do a stock take of the entire library. In the first year before everything was bar-coded, this meant going and checking every single shelf by hand. Later on, we got a barcode scanner which made it a bit quicker. Then there was the daily re-shelving. Running up and down stairs with piles of books, sorting them into subject categories, then re-shelving them, reading snippets here and there. It was bliss. Even the law library, where the books had incredibly dull names, there was something very soothing about putting them away in the right places. One year we had to accession a bequest of hundreds of books. At that point we still wrote out library cards as the library was still in the process of transitioning to a digital system. I got to keep loads of them as there were too many for us to keep. They remain some of my most prized book possessions.

Like the Times article says, one of the most important lessons from these 'other' jobs, is learning what it's like to be someone else, the many people who do these sorts of jobs everyday for their whole lives. Academia is an odd place really when you think about it, not at all like the real world is for most people. That is something that can be easy to forget, or to not realize at all, when you spend your whole life in that environment, transitioning straight from student to academic. I would argue that doing something else for a while, either as an undergraduate or between degrees, is important to enable you to empathize and understand the 'public' that we are so often asked to engage with as academics. It is also useful for experiencing life and gaining experience outside academia, which is important for seeking so called alt ac employment, which is something I'll write more about in a future blog post!

Monday, 6 June 2016

Getting shortlisted - publications

Since joining Newcastle I have been on two shortlisting panels, one for a temporary teaching post and the other for a permanent lectureship. Having been on the other side of things for such a long time, I think I have honed my own application skills considerably, and it has been quite eye-opening to see how the hiring process works, and what other peoples' applications look like. It was really obvious the people who 'knew what they were doing' (i.e. had probably talked to senior colleagues and gotten advice) versus those who just wrote what I would consider a 'first draft' type application. The application is like a piece of work for publication; everything needs to be spot on. It was frustrating to see what were probably good candidates not really sell themselves well, and often not demonstrate how they actually fit the job criteria. There was a tendency I think in many cases to make assumptions, that the reader would just know what the technical skills were, or why a certain area of research was important. Never make assumptions!

One thing that struck me was the huge focus on publications. I think we all know publications are important, but I hadn't realised exactly what this means in practice. I thought I was doing exceptionally well in terms of publications having managed 2 in 2009 (ok but very technical/analytical) and a whopping 5 substantial papers in 2011 (actually, some were submitted much earlier than that they just took ages to come out). Then I also had almost 7 years of postdocs in which to build my publication record. It has been very clear that in order to even be considered now, a candidate needs to be completely 'REF ready'. As an early career researcher in the previous REF, this meant at least 2 high quality published papers in good journals, which is just about doable as a recent PhD if everything goes well. But now it seems that 4 is preferred. That's a lot to ask of a recent PhD, and pretty much ensures you have to have done a postdoc of some sort before you are likely to be considered for a lectureship.

So I may have been lucky soon after finishing the PhD if the panel liked my very technical papers of 2009, but probably would not have been a suitable candidate until at least 2011, 3 years after submitting my PhD. It's possible that a candidate could maybe make up for having fewer papers with truly amazing other areas of the CV, but there was little budging on this. Some of the applicants had amazing CVs with great plans, but without those papers, we could not shortlist them. I understand the reasoning behind it, that's the way things work now whether we like it or not. But it just seems to add yet another dimension of random to the process. What if your research doesn't lend itself to multiple papers? What if your papers have all been sat in review for 6 months?

You need to be really on the ball. If you're doing a PhD with sights set on an academic job, you need to make sure you are publishing, even during your PhD. Collaborate with others, co-author papers (the importance of networking cannot be over-stated). Or at least make sure you apply for fellowships and postdocs in plenty of time, so that you have the job security that will let you publish your PhD as soon as you can. Is this the best way to do things in academia? It certainly favors people who can write quickly. It probably means that some papers get rushed too. There is a careful balance to strike between timely publication and publishing before the work is ready. I feel like the latter is better in some ways; it is better to get your ideas out there rather than falling into the trap of trying to produce the 'perfect' piece of work. Any thoughts from my readers?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Where did all that time go

I can't believe it's already June, getting close to a year in my job at Newcastle. I can't even call it my new job anymore! It's been an amazing year so far. Even though I have been swamped with designing new modules and getting used to the teaching and admin processes here, I have really enjoyed everything. I even managed to get some research related activities in. I applied for a NERC new investigator grant back in January, which in itself was a learning process. 10,000 words in total for that application, and that wasn't even the hard part; sorting out the finances for an international project split between two institutions (my co-I is at Bristol) was more of a headache that I expected. Then the reviewing process, oh the reviewing process. Despite being told that being interdisciplinary is one of my major strengths, and I do believe that it leads to better, more innovative research, it makes things surprisingly hard when it comes to applying for funding. There's the first problem of ticking the box for which panel you belong to (archaeology? archaeological science? Quaternary science? Soils?). My research is pretty much always a combination of different subject areas and methodologies. Then there is finding people qualified to review the proposal. An expert is the biomolecular methods for example is unlikely to be aware of the archaeological significance, and likewise an expert in the archaeological and Quaternary environment aspects may not be able to comment on the appropriateness of the methodology. I would like to think my case for support was clear enough that even non-experts could understand, but there was a last minute panic where I thought I wasn't going to get enough reviews to even be put forward to the panel! We did manage to get someone in the last week though, so fingers crossed. The reviewer comments were all pretty positive, so I guess I've done the best I can, now it's just a matter of being judged against all the other applications, which is happening imminently.

What else did I get up to this year. I'm 6000 words into a very theory heavy paper. Science is so much easier. You have some questions and a hypothesis, collect samples, do lab analysis, generate data, then sit and work through it in a nice logical fashion, and it either supports your hypothesis, or not. Hopefully you can answer at least some of your questions, and identify what you need to do to improve things next time. Time consuming, but straight forward. For me anyway. The really hard bit is the interpretation - even scientific data needs to be interpreted. You can answer some defined questions, but what about the bigger picture? What does it all mean? How much can we rely on our data and the flawed, incomplete samples that are inevitable in archaeology? How do we even know that these patterns we observe are related to the activities and processes that we assume they are? It leads you down a philosophical path that requires very careful thinking about the actual process of research, every step that we take, and whether we can really make the leap from some analysis to grand statements about the past. I doubt it is going to be my most popular paper, but it's something I need to do, if only to clarify my own thinking, though I do hope others find it useful as well.