Sunday, 24 November 2013

Nordic Theoretical Group Conference 2014: head to Stockholm!

I and Phil Mills are not only running the 20 years of taskscapes session in the TAG-On-Sea but will also be running a more general Landscapes of temporality and activities session in the Nordic TAG at Stockholm, since I am already here and the conference happens to fall to the last days of the Easter leave from school, so it will be possible for both of us to be here. Probably have to start considering childminder service for the day of our session. We will have to split the reception duties, since one of us has to be putting our son to bed and stay in the suburbs.

Naturally, the session will have to have general appeal and be open to as many researchers, students and field archaeologists as possible. The pool of archaeologists is smaller and even if the Easter time allows potentially lovely spring trips to the archipelago or Medieval towns outside Stockholm, the lure of ‘theory’ is not coupled with the Christmas disco...

Our session will aim at discussing the ways we archaeologists interpret landscapes and use archaeological distributions within different theoretical frameworks. We hope that people will bring up all kinds of –scapes and –scenes defined by archaeologists, and explore different theories and methods we use to make sense of material culture and landscapes. I have started to ask different people to contribute and hope we can cover various aspects of both Nordic and Mediterranean landscape archaeology in order to create a proper mash-up.

Irritatingly, some really good conferences are running simultaneously, so there will be nothing about Gamla Uppsala or Finnish ‘giants’ churches’, but if I am lucky sealscapes and chalcoscenes will feature together with long-term use of rock art sites, colonial Mediterranean landscapes and Pompeii. We have not decided what we are going to speak ourselves, but naturally, it will be something ceramiscene related. Let’s see, if somebody than Phil can provide the talk on tiles.

Our session will be the only pure landscape one, but there are potentially quite interesting things happening with the non-visual rock art session, material citations, applications of colonial archaeology within Nordic context and the theorisation of poverty and wealth. To be totally honest, I am not totally sure about the concept of a flat ontology. The session description makes sense, but I assume no being can be totally flat, only condensed. Some sessions have a slightly déjà-vu flavour – Olsen and memories, anyone (notice the unintended irony in my statement I only noticed after writing that: does Olsen do irony too?) – but there is a lot of novelty in the suggestions. What is probably missing, is the sense of fun and experimentation of the ‘original’ TAG during the office hours. A Nordic TAG is a much more sober and serious affair, although the soberness does not extend to the evening program. The party is to be the one truly frivolous item in this conference. Trust me, I know who is planning it! (NOT me)

Check the sessions yourself: click here.
If you are brave, check the prices from here.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What is AKS? Defining a discipline

The acronym AKS describes something that does not really exist in many other places in the world. A freestanding academic discipline dedicated to the study of Ancient cultures and society, a.k.a. classical archaeology and ancient history – without Classics that are placed in different Department within Humanities at Stockholm and other Swedish Universities. Every four or a couple of years, the members of staff, PhD students and researchers come together to a conference that was held this year at Gothenburg.

For a new postdoctoral researcher coming from abroad this two-day conference gave a crash course of the content and breadth of the discipline, current research, challenges and achievements. It gave a possibility to meet the coming director of the Swedish Institute and see all the professors – all female – in one place at the same time. For myself the most important thing was to hear want the other researchers, including the PhD students, are studying.

The packed programme was criticized in beforehand, but for my purposes, i.e. presenting myself and learning the basics of the discipline in its Swedish incarnation, this intensity was a plus. Many of the questions discussed during the second day, including the content of the doctoral taught component, where such that I did not and could not have anything else than a preliminary opinion, so two days of discussions of streamlining of the researcher courses would have just taken time from my own work.

A more relaxed moment at Makrakomi (photo: Swedish Institute at Athens)

The PhD students and researchers presented topics that emphasised mainly the archaeological and art historical aspects of the research. Landscape archaeology and spatial questions got a prominent presentation in the talks of Axel Frejman (Uppsala) and Anton Bonnier (Gothenburg), basing on two important Swedish research projects at Labraunda and Makrakomi respectively. More topographical topics were presented in the talks of Patrik Klingborg (Uppsala), Fanny Kärfve (Lund) and Robin Lönnlund (Gothenburg), speaking about the Greek cisterns, the entrance mosaics and the function of Pompeian domus and symbolism of Greek akropoleis respectively. The more art historical themes were discussed in the presentations of Linnea Åshede (Gothenburg) and Julia Habetzeder (Stockholm). The former PhD student studies the hermaphrodites in [Roman] classical art whereas the latter postdoc tries to develop an intertextual way of studying Roman ideal sculptures. I myself presented my current work on the pre-Roman inscriptions in central Italy and Sujatha Chandrasekaran (Gothenburg) discussed her research in the eastern Black Sea region. We were the guest researchers of the conference and the only ones who gave their presentations in English.

The discipline tries to feed discussions through thematical networks and groups, although some have been more successful than others. It is clear that the gender studies, Greek religion and Roman studies have enough active researchers, many in the nearby universities, so co-operation is possible especially in the Uppsala-Stockholm and Gothenburg-Lund axis. Let’s see, if any of the new announced ones will be alive in two years time in Lund, when the discipline comes together the next time. Then the focus will be on the research presentations.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


Anyone has walked around the ruins of Portus near the Fiumicino airport outside Rome appreciates how the sheer size of the harbours and ports has been among us for millennia. Even if the history of popular air travel has not even reached a century, flying has left easily recognisable structures all over the world. Yes, I admit that in many far-flung places the air strips are just that – strips – in the jungle or a flat area along the coast. However, the largest airports fill hectares and the support structures around them are huge. Drive to Heathrow and try to find your way around different hotel areas and parking lots!

Now when I live in two different countries I get to visit different airports every month. Just in last two weeks I have familiarized myself with different terminals at Stockholm, landed to Birmingham and flew off from the City airport. Birmingham airport became most memorable because of the late coach that risked me catching my connection and getting home in time, whereas Stockholm Terminal 5 was huge with row after row of fashion boutiques but a ladies toilet with only two booths. And one of the booths had the only baby change facilities in the toilet. Next to a coffee shop. Long way from the next ladies toilet. Had to be a male architect!

City Airport in Google Earth

The real revelation was the City airport in London. I admit I took the advice from some random web site for face value and ended up doing a longer journey than I should have, but I was amazed by the landscapes I could see from the Dockland Light Railway. For the first time I saw the profile of Canary Wharf in real life with the skyscrapers rising high. Suddenly I passed the Millennium Dome – I mean the O2 Arena. It was as pointless-looking as in the photos or Google Earth but bigger. One passed the Thames flood defences and numerous shining funky town houses, old sugar factories and wasteland. Then there was the airport itself. Just an airstrip and a ‘box’ along the canal side. I have to go again just to marvel the river and the changing urban make-up.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Mummyfried Tutankhamun

The latest scientific archaeological news from the Egyptological front concerns my all time favourite pharaoh Tutankhamun. When a teenager, I was carried away by those lovely colourful picture book about Tutankhamun’s treasure and found the whole uncertainty of his family relations intriguing and thought-provoking. It was somehow soothing that the only more or less untouched pharaonic tomb was saved by the obscurity of the figure who was buried and the way Amarna period was put aside from the official histories of the land of two Egypts. In addition, my relatively religious upbringing made a period when the Egypt went monotheistic appealing.

The charred mummy (photo by PA)

I remember from the previous Tutankhamen news when his mummy was scrutinised in Egypt that he had broken thigh and one of the theories of his untimely death was that he simply got a blood poisoning after his badly broken leg infected. Now we hear that actually his heart was not buried with him – a detail unheard of with the other pharaohs. Besides the missing heart his breast plate was not there and the ribs where broken on one side. The car crash modellers promptly modelled chariot crashes and confirmed that this looks like his chariot hit him and crushed his chest. The boy pharaoh was thus just a typical silly boy. Racing with other boys and while making daring moves made one move very, very wrongly with catastrophic consequences.

Nevertheless, even more sensational was the news that among some bones among the possessions of the original excavations was a small piece of pharaoh’s flesh. From this piece of evidence – and from the notes of Carter – the scientist could conclude that the mummification was botched and the oils used in the process combusted. The boy pharaoh was slowly cooked at +200 degrees Centigrade. He definitely was not a lucky boy.

One of the joys of life in England is to observe the bad puns delivered by the tabloid newspapers. Mummifried currently tops the list and shows how some archaeological finds have truly captured the imagination of the public in the long term. I doubt the cultural diversity in the areas with early Latin colonies will not raise any kind of acknowledgement in any kind of press. Luckily, I am likely to find academic publishers for my less pun-filled ‘news’.