Friday, 29 July 2016

Social mobility and a sense of (not) belonging

Warning, if you read this blog for the fun archaeology, this post is unlikely to interest you! It's a bit of a personal grump about life and academia. Wasn't even sure whether to post it, but here goes.

I'm having an identity crisis at the moment. It's been brought to the forefront because of Brexit, but it's something that I've always felt in the back of my mind for as long time. I never recognised it at the time, as it has been a process rather than a sudden understanding, but I think it started when my parents (mam in particular) decided that I should go to a private (fee paying) secondary school rather than the state school all my friends were going to. Up until that point, I was the same as everyone else in my family. Grew up in Wallsend, lived in a council house, walked to school which was the local primary. Had never been abroad on holiday, and never expected that I would. We didn't have a lot of money as my dad had lost his job in the shipyards, and that's just the way things were. Just before my 10th birthday, my mam suggested that my sister and I should sit the entrance exam for a private girls' school in Newcastle (La Sagesse, now sadly closed). I didn't think too much about it really, parents didn't make a huge fuss or anything. We passed the exam, and were awarded places on the (ironically, Tory) government's assisted places scheme. The scheme was abolished by the Labour government in 1997 for being elitist. And there began the seeds of my dual identity: poor working class family but from age 10 having friends who on the whole would be regarded as middle class, and certainly with more money than we had. I still accepted that we didn't have a lot of money, and was hugely grateful for getting to attend a great school. Grateful is the right word, as it was what I was taught. My parents always went on about how lucky I was to go to a 'good' school, and that it was better than the state school, that I had to make the most of this opportunity by working hard and doing well. Whether it was better than the state school isn't something I can comment on, never having had experience of the other, but La Sagesse was certainly good in that most of the teachers were great, class sizes were small, and there was a lot of support.

Things changed even more when I went to university. Regular blog readers know I went to Oxford as an undergraduate - even further removed from my experience growing up on a council estate in the north east. I could hardly believe I got offered a place. I know that going to a private school probably helped, at least as much as my own hard work and being academically gifted. I doubt I would even have known how to apply otherwise. All these little things that people don't think about - how would a student be expected to know how to apply to university when no one in their family has gone before? I saw my success as a product of having parents who emphasized how important it was to get a good education if I wanted to get a good job and do well in life. The 'aspiration' was there I guess, the encouragement (sometimes verging on obsessive) from my mam that made all the difference.

Over the years I have gradually moved into a 'middle class' lifestyle, though I am often reminded that I am not quite there. The majority of people I know and spend time with are now middle class rather than working class, rather than people like my family. The conversations I have, the things I care about, are mostly 'middle class' concerns. But I still remember what it was like, and what it is still like for my parents. That is why I understand why they voted Leave in Brexit (don't get me wrong, I am incredibly exasperated by it!). I was angry at first, but I calmed down after a few days. I've had lots of conversations with academic friends, all of whom are Remain like myself, and it is clear that many of them do not have the same understanding of the working class perspective that I do. I can see why they are angry too. There seems to be an undercurrent around the whole debate that if you are educated you are being elitist, and if you're not then you're stupid. I've had it from both sides (not intentionally, just implied). Even my parents who went on and on about the importance of a good education, now tell me that I'm on the other side, with an implied tone of betrayal. I used to think social mobility was something everyone should aspire to. I have no regrets about my own circumstances and wouldn't choose anything else, but it does have a downside that I never considered until now. The feeling that you don't quite belong anywhere, the feeling that you are no longer connected to the place and people you grew up with.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Summer suddenly got very busy!

It's been just over 3 weeks since I got back from fieldwork in Sicily and I'm still missing the sun, and the fun of doing fieldwork. I had hoped to be doing more over the summer and getting on with microscope work for the Ness of Brodgar midden samples, but for various reasons that isn't looking likely. I have a mountain of admin  to get on top of, including sorting out adverts and interviews for a PhD studentship I have been awarded (exciting stuff, I'll post more about it when the advert is live), sorting out adverts for a postdoctoral position I have, related to a successful grant application (even more exciting, more details as soon as the grant details have been confirmed!). As the grant is joint with Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit, I also have to make a trip down there in August to sort out details and a work plan. Added to all of this is our website migration to a mobile responsive system. This is very welcome news as the current site is a bit out of date. As the resident social media/website person I am responsible for overseeing the new archaeology content, which is quite the challenge, as it involves rewriting a lot of existing material as well as creating new text and images. All in all, the last 3 weeks have gone from being an expectation of quiet contemplation and writing time, to super busy many things to sort out in the next month. This is good of course; after a year of settling in at Newcastle everything is suddenly gaining momentum, and I look forward to see where the slowly developing Wolfson lab group is in a years time!

I miss having this view for breakfast!

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Digitized thin section slides!

I can't remember if I posted about this earlier in the year, but I was lucky enough to be awarded two student work experience placements as part of the Newcastle NWE programme, where students complete flexible paid projects within the university. Two of my Environmental Archaeology students have been working for the past few months, digitizing my entire collection of thin section slides. At some point I hope to make these available online as an open access resource for teaching and research. They did a brilliant job! I've only just had a chance to go through all the scans, having been away on fieldwork, busy with exams, then graduation. Here is one of the scans of a thin section from medieval Riga, that I have been working on as part of the Ecology of Crusading project. Combined with the fact I have just moved the lovely Leica DM750P research microscope into my office (kindly purchased by History, Classics and Archaeology), I can now get working on my mounting backlog of samples on a regular basis. In the pictures below you can see a lot of partially waterlogged wood (the brownish orange looking stuff), some of which is undergoing various stages of microbial decay. As I was browsing I came across these little spherical particles, which are scattered throughout this layer. I suspect these are fungal spores of some sort, though I am not an expert in fungi and will need to do some digging around to see if I can identify them. they look similar to some spores I found in samples from Margat castle, also associated with decaying wood.

Come for the Pokemon, stay for the cool Roman archaeology

Disclaimer: I was a huge Pokemon fan in the late 90s and played it religiously on my Gameboy. So I was always going to love Pokemon Go just from a nostalgia perspective. So I've been a bit surprised at all the moaning about it on social media - seriously, why be all grumpy about a free game that gets people outside and walking about? It's not like we haven't all been playing odd games on our phones for years. Candy Crush anyone? I think Pokemon Go is a brilliant idea, you literally have to leave the house and get some exercise to play it. We all lament so much that 'kids these days' spend all day sat down playing computer games instead of going outside, what could be better than combining the two? Something I did not expect was that I would learn so much playing it. Whereas the original game was set in a fantasy world, this one is set in the real world. The whole thing is based on a location based tourist app, that gives you little snippets of information on various cultural and heritage attractions as you walk around an area. Each of the little stops that you walk to on the Pokemon map is connected to a building, memorial, or some other point of interest, and in order to collect your items from it, you have to read a little box that tells you about it. It's fantastic! I grew up in Wallsend, lived there for 18 years, and it is only through playing Pokemon Go for the past week that I have realized how much there is to see, that I just hadn't paid attention to before. All those memorials that were just part of the scenery - now I actually know what they are and what they represent. It turns out there's a Masonic Hall in Wallsend, who knew! And there's a Pokemon Go gym at Segedunum - surely encouraging people to visit this museum, which is otherwise slightly out of the way, is a good thing? Come for the Pokemon, stay for the cool Roman archaeology. It's possibly one of the best potential outreach ideas ever - can you imagine the audience you could reach if your excavation was turned into a Pokemon stop?

Pokemon in my office, Pokemon when I go for coffee. Meowth, that's right!

Fancy dress day

The Reading PhD gown is not actually that bad! 
Yesterday I attended my first graduation as an academic, in the procession for graduations at Newcastle. As it is my first year here I did not know many of the students very well, only the handful whose dissertations I supervised. Even so it was a surprisingly emotional occasion. It reminded me of my own graduations and how much I've changed since I first started university. My first graduation I was still in the midst of being a shy reclusive northerner in a very traditional and competitive Oxford, and I didn't really enjoy the whole experience of graduation, aside from my parents being there and being proud. It probably didn't help that the whole thing was in Latin, though now I'd probably find that quite fun. And in the Sheldonian Theatre - an absolutely amazing building. It's sad to reflect on how much more I could have gained out of my undergraduate experience, if I'd not felt so isolated. I hope that I can use my own experience to make sure students with a similar background to mine don't go though the same thing. I didn't even go to my Masters graduation as I was feeling all rebellious and what's the point of it all. I was still struggling with shyness at that point (my mam will never forgive me for not have a photo to match the other two). My PhD graduation I was beginning to feel better about life, my confidence has increased a tad, and I actually felt like I'd achieved something worth celebrating. Sitting at the front of the hall in fancy dress and watching the audience was a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to be where I am today, doing the job I always dreamed of. As a parent myself, I now also have a much better appreciation of why these things are so important to family. It's not something I think I could ever explain to my younger self, who never felt like she quite belonged. Unfortunately I had to leave the drinks reception almost as soon as it started after I nearly fainted. Wool suit plus robes and hat is not a good combination in warm weather!

Monday, 18 July 2016

DIG2017 conference - call for papers

Back in February I announced that Newcastle would be hosting the 7th Developing International Geoarchaeology conference in 2017. Plans are slowly coming along and I am happy to say the conference website is now up and running, which you can view here. There is all sorts of information about travel and whatnot, and we will be updating it regularly, so keep checking. We have also issued the first call for papers, almost a year in advance so plenty of time to make your arrangements! Information on conference accommodation will be available soon and will be bookable at the time of registration, which we hope to have ready by the end of September this year. Student and early career researchers may be interested to know that we are going to have prizes awarded for the best paper and poster submissions, kindly sponsored by the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. We are also making arrangements with Geoarchaeology journal for a potential special issue related to the conference, subject to the usual review procedures. And added to that some amazing field trips to some of the best landscapes in Britain, both natural and archaeological, and it promises to be a very exciting conference indeed!

Field trip to Roman Vindolanda!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Geoarchaeology at Case Bastione

I'm missing the Sicilian weather already. As much as I love Newcastle, I'm very much a fan of hot weather, and the 35 degrees in Sicily suited me nicely. Likewise, I don't think I can ever have ice cream in the UK again after 2 weeks of Italian gelato. And oh how I miss the coffee. I feel very invigorated after the fieldwork. Despite the depressing news we received while were away, the excavation reminded me of everything that originally got me interested in archaeology. Travelling, the excitement of discovery, and the satisfaction of successfully completing hard work. This is my first year of involvement in the project, but I hope to dedicate time to it over the next few years (not just because of the gelato and coffee, though that does help). As I am sure you have guessed, my role in the project is to conduct a series of pilot geoarchaeological studies to investigate the formation processes of some of the more unusual deposits and features on site. The first of these is a series of pits, which were initially thought to be connected to metalworking but don't seem to have any metalworking residues. Perhaps they were related to processing some other product, or maybe for storage? Another focus are various 'burning' deposits. There are also some floors and occupation surfaces, though excavation is not yet at a stage where I can collect samples for these - it's good to be around from the beginning though, so we can mark out plinth areas that will make sampling much easier next year or the year after.

As well as the formation processes and activities within the building, I am interested in the site from an environmental perspective, and looking at the types of fuel resources people were using. The site is much later than a lot of my work on this particular question, and it will be interesting to see how it compares, both in terms of the results, and the applicability of the methodological approach I developed in the Near East. The environments, whilst not identical, are similar in many ways.

What's that black stuff?
Do not dig area - a small section of deposits to be left in situ for future micromorphology sampling

Monday, 4 July 2016

Fieldwork in Sicily - Abandoned buildings

Back in the office today after a safe return from Sicily yesterday. I've just about cleared the two week email backlog and am going through all the fieldwork photos. As well as taking lots of photos of the actual excavation, I also took quite a few around the town where we were staying, Villarosa. It's a very small town, with a population of around 6000. A few decades ago it was almost twice this, but the population declined rapidly after the last of the local sulphur mines was closed in the 1980s. A huge number of people moved to Belgium to take up work in the coal mines, leaving a large number of unoccupied buildings in the town. The photos show an example of an abandoned building overgrown with vegetation, located in between two occupied flats. It is such a strange thing to see; we would never get this in the UK, where property (or land to build new property) is so sought after. It got me thinking about the prehistoric urban landscape of places like Catalhoyuk. The population of Catalhoyuk is thought to be similar to that of Villrosa today, and we know that abandoned buildings were located directly adjacent to occupied ones, and often used as midden dumps. It is hard to imagine how this would have looked, but Villarosa gives a good example, how one building can decline whilst another endures, and in other parts of the town newer buildings are constructed.