Saturday, 26 December 2015

River Song constellation

The sublime episode of Dr Who brought us again the wonderful character of River Song, beautifully (in every sense of the word) acted by Alex Kingston. River Song is an adult woman, funny, sassy, adventurous and quick-witted with a marvellous dressing sense. More importantly, she is an archaeologist and a wife of Dr Who, the status not granted to any of the other assistants and companions who have come and gone over the years (my husband is a Whovian, so we watch old episodes on the Horror channel where Doctors, assistants and villains are constantly interchangeable). She is something else – in so many ways.

Even as a fictional character, she has more nuances than many other female characters in the movies or TV series. There is more emotional range than one would expect from a series basically directed to tweens, teenagers and their dads. She is the character, together with the assistant pair of Amy Pond and Rory Williams (oh no, they killed Rory – again) and the Victorian lizard lady and her partner, that truly delivers for mums as well. Her trade as an archaeologist is, however, firmly in what I call ‘the Indiana Jones school of archaeology’, a perception of archaeology as the continuation of adventurous exploration of the late 19th century. Think of gentlemen with independent funds visiting the Mesa Verde, the expeditions of different early societies and that sort of thing.

She is probably nearer the character an everywoman – or perhaps more like an everyfemalearchaeologist – would like to be in their more empowered Indiana Jones dreams (not in the ones where they team up and be rescued by Harrison Ford – very few females, even feminist ones, would let that one pass). Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie is a male day dream, whereas River Song is a more realistic portrayal of a female human being in the dreamland. However, she has common nominators with real women – or at least some things they dream to be. You can also expect her to turn up at a dig and run it without difficulties. Naturally, as the body images go, I cannot expect any fictional characters nor archaeology programme presenters to fit my bill – bespectacled, overweight shorty with a foreign accent – but she is a fantasy figure one would like to be. She is not alien, since she has the familiar kind of sassiness and sarcastic funny manner of speech that remind me of certain female colleagues and departmental workers around.

Archaeology is naturally a shorthand for a licence to explore and raid and even the awesome sonic trowel (well, for an archaeologist) is declared ‘embarrassing’ by the Doctor. The sound bites include River Song’s declaration that an ‘archaeologist is a thief, but with a patience’, which alarmingly puts archaeologists nearer to those trading with illicit antiquities than anybody else. No archaeologist can claim that they do not like finding things, but most of the time people act according to permit systems and ethical codes. The aim for the most is to explain and interpret the past and to show how we got here we are now and what reference the past has with the present. Most real archaeologists do not follow a diamant to the end of the galaxy, but try to understand the relationships of the features in their excavation area.

Archaeology as escapism is nothing new and it comes up constantly in popular fiction, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries where it is more visible in the media anyway. Captain Picard in Star Trek New Generation was carrying out his explorations in the holo deck and a more realistic and interesting portrayal is in the recent Detectorists comedy series on BBC4 where the sympathetic younger character has an archaeology degree and have to explain how he reconciles between two roles and keeps it ethical. I must say I watch it more because of human portrayals of Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook. The latter has also written and directed the series, so does he actually have studied archaeology... He so acutely describes the different characters who are in archaeology and in [ethical] detectoring...

Nevertheless, Dr Who and Detectorists give us perceptions of archaeologists from the people who do not really know and those who do. It would be nice to travel the universe and drop the oneliners like ‘I am an archaeologist. I dug you up.’, but it would be nice to be seen more realistically as well. However, there is no better fictional female role model than River Song in the guts terms.

Sunday, 20 December 2015


I had a strong feeling I should only more or less to copy and paste here last year's blog entry for this week, just leaving out the references to the REF and replacing Manchester with Bradford, but it probably would not have made justice to the reality. If I was a spin doctor, it would be relatively easy to give a positive spin to this week: our edited volume is almost ready, I was successful in getting the final articles in and pairing them with peer-reviewers and we finalised the paperwork for my three-year contract so I will be employed from the first of January again at Stockholm. Nevertheless, my life was basically about replacing fullstops with commas, transforming footnotes to endnotes and informing my Nordic colleagues that they should replace the decimal commas with decimal points in the scales of their figures. I needed breaks, so I managed to enter firmly to the Hyacinth Bucket school of ignorance when making earlier a few tweets (I could mentally hear my colleagues verbalising 'Could you please read/watch before opening your mouth/typing those letters on the keyboard') plus spent half a day sending Christmas cards, forgetting to include quite a many people in the list.

As a result of the continuous editing and the fact that I could better spot the diversions from the house style by having short pauses, I ended up following this year's TAG in its Twitter feed relatively regularly. I also commented the events both in my private and public roles. The duality was replicated in the Twitter reality where the tweets from the Mental Health in Archaeology and Fiction sessions were alternating and almost commenting each other. In one tweet from the Fiction session a tweeter told that the current speaker concluded that in archaeological narratives social, cultural and interpersonal interactions are mostly absent and the following Mental Health tweet, in time just after the former, suggested that there people were discussing suffering during the fieldwork.

The theme of the TAG this year was diversity, but somehow the Mental Health theme sounded more like a CIfA conference one. It turned out that there was an important input from the CIfA. However, the TAG potentially gives better access to younger archaeologists, both students and early career ones, and more mix with academics, so I can see why it was there. There was also a session about the young people (or their absense) in archaeology. This session was also reflected in the tweets that seemed to elude many interesting sessions. The tweeters were unevenly spread plus some major actors were presenting. Thus, there was very little Monumentality and movement or Heterarchy.

These kinds of interventions enlightened my days while I was reformatting references or pestering my colleagues, pleading for emergency peer-reviews that I was asking to be given now/in a few days/by Christmas Eve. I still will have one article to get and one peer-reviewer to find who will be period specific and can do over the holidays. I should also download the files for the next volume of the Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland that also requires finally attention. I already sent the editorial board their Christmas cards, but they may get further communications on this matter before the term will start again.

It has been editing days, although it was not that my life would not have any drama... As indicated last week, our family cat was displaced - so much so that she was missing for almost a whole week. But that I leave to my mummy blog.

Next week it will be Christmas, so this blog may or may not take a week's leave. Eating chocolate on Boxing Day may trump any scribing!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Missing out

Former Wihuri Fellowship holders in Helsinki (photo via the IRF/Villa Lante)

It seems a fitting morning to reflect the academic events that were happening while I was in the fieldwork in Volterra. Tomorrow I will be disappearing to the world of punctuation, indentations and reference formatting while my colleagues group to Bradford to discuss archaeological theory in the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference and have the annual TAG party. After gallivanting for four weeks abroad, it is my turn to do the school run - and perhaps occasionally see from the Twitter stream what is going on. I also seem to have misplaced the family cat, who was not supposed to be let outside due to recent operation...

It was lovely, though, in Volterra

The timing of Volterra fieldwork was beyond my choice, so unfortunately, I could not attend the Swedish ämneskonferens for classical archaeologists and ancient historians, even if I had originally make the trip on my own cost, if possible. It is useful to hear what other people are studying and I would have had my own presentation to give, if there had been space in the programme. The timing of the conference also meant that I could not organise the visit of the director of the Swedish Institute in Rome to Volterra, even if I have money reserved for it. This has to wait until the coming year.

At least I was handed the programme of the conference. The research themes covered by the Swedish classicists are fascinating ranging from the Mediterranean-wide study of the polygonal columns (Tess Paulson) to family potraits in Athenian grave monuments (Agneta Strömberg) and to the changes brought by Roman expansion in Ager Bleranus (Hampus Ohlsson). This year in this biannual meeting the focus was on PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, but the professors and lecturers presented their field projects and teaching and more famous researchers presented their latest projects (public mourning, Ida Östenberg) and there was also indications of the things to come (Francavilla di Sicilia, Kristian Göransson).

Since I was in fieldwork, my excuse not attending the classical events was rock solid. Regardless, I was feeling a bit sorry my face could not be among the former Wihuri stipendiates, the grant holders in the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae. The trust of the institute and the Wihuri Foundation organised a big gala dinner to celebrate the 50 years of the fellowship on November 19. This naturally collided with the ämneskonferens, so at least I did not have to choose, which country, Rome institute and group of colleagues to support. I had managed to write a short piece remembering my stay in Rome during the academic year 1997/1998 that involved learning Etruscan pottery with Marco Rendeli's group of laureandi, part of the restudy of the South Etruria Project, at the British School at Rome, mixing with the Finnish au pair crowd in selected bars, taking part in the excavations at Veii and having discussion lessons in Italian from an architecture student whose competition work I ended up taking to Barcelona. My fellow ex-Wihurist told me that all he could remember of my piece was my difficulties with Italian verbs! It may be that my Italian colleagues strongly agree. Well, at least I could see the photos on the Facebook page!

It was not only the things classical I missed. I also missed the Finnish archaeologist days, which naturally were this year organised in my home city of Tampere. I could have seen my friends and visit my mother before Christmas at the same time. The programme concentrated on Finnish industrial heritage, very suitable topic for the old textile and paper industrial town. Now most of the factories are silent or transformed to offices, flats, shopping centres and museum spaces, but the old paper factory by the rapids still pushes steam. My own report as the Editor-in-Chief of the Monographs of the Archaeological Society in Finland (MASF) had been sent hastily in a few lines in an e-mail before vanishing to Italy.

I and my assistant managed to have a small miss ourselves in Rome. I suddenly realised on the last Friday that I have to put the drawing board, graph paper, first aid kit and other utensils somewhere and contacted Villa Lante, the Finnish Institute in Rome where naturally nobody could guarantee that anybody will be on a late Sunday afternoon in the house. It was a glorious sunny Sunday that day when we drove through Etruria back to Rome. Predictably, all were out, so all I could do was to throw everything in a plastic bag, tape a message in Finnish and Italian onto the drawing board explaining that the things should go to the office and that I will sort them out the next time I will be in Rome and throw the items inside the gate. Apparently, it was not raining during the night, since everything had been collected and taken inside.

Nevertheless, may be I should mention an occasion I could make. I did advertise and also tweet about the marvellous talk Dr Rebecca Jones gave on the Roman camps in Britain in the Royal Archaeological Institute lecture. Next time, I hope the photos also go through - it apparently was an evening of cyber attacks and Twitter and my phone just could handle texts. The following morning all went swimmingly through.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

“Whatever docents” – disrespecting specialists and knowledge

Photo linked from the site of the Finnish Broadcasting company

It is the Finnish Independence Day today, so 'Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää' all! In order to mark this day, I discuss a parallel development in my two homelands, Finland and UK. As my husband says, a reflection of neoliberal ideology that worries many in Academia.

First, I have an admission to make – I am a docent, i.e., a honorary adjunct professor assessed by a Finnish University to show independent research equivalent to the amount required for a doctorate and teaching skills. My specialism is very narrow, protohistoric central Italian archaeology, but that is what I currently do and that was what the University of Oulu was happy with at the time (now they have become ‘an Arctic university – but that is another story). This week after returning from Volterra, I have actually managed to spend half a day in the library, even if mostly I have had to deal with more practical matters, such as doing accounts, receiving data files from the GPR crew and paying my assistant his stipendium. These practical acts need to be done before spelling out the results of different collaborations. And ultimately study such unimportant topics as identity and multiculturality, for example.

This week the prime minister of Finland made an angrily toned comment in live TV about ‘whatever docents’ who counteract government’s policies. His comment, word by word directly translated as ‘whatever docents of this world’ suggests that he feels contempt towards those who have pointed out how many of the governments initiatives have been poorly prepared and in places against the law. He seems to consider different specialists the opposition of progress for which his government has the righteous vision. It is a right-wing government whose ministers have been caught generously speaking ‘giving wrong information’ and in plain speak ‘lying’. It is very difficult to see how stating that 90% of civil servants support a scheme that is in its core a tax avoiding scheme can be seen just ‘giving wrong information’ when the true situation was exactly the opposite. No wonder the support figures of certain Finnish ministers are plummeting rapidly.

This government has also started a harsh programme of cutting funding from the universities. The National Board of Antiquities is about to lose c. 20 % of its permanent staff and the University of Helsinki is starting to look to drop 12% of its employers. The government wants to shut small departments and create single units – at the same time as it dreams of innovation. Monoculture has rarely fostered innovative thinking. Well, I should not worry, since my kind of innovation is not wanted, but useful engineering or Nokia kind of variety. Respect for Humanities seems to be a rare species and the verbalised suggestions from ministers, such as that ‘professors have three reasons to stay in their jobs, namely June, July and August’ and the summertime – the only time the teaching staff can do research – will be taken up for an extra term, show lack of understanding universities and their work. This interestingly shows that the ministers do not know that their funding formulas for Finnish universities are based heavily on research output. How and when do the staff produce this research their salaries are dependent on is anybody’s guess. Academics are probably not supposed to have life.

The result is that the academia in Finland has begun to have enough and the members of the union of the researchers plus that of professors are contemplating strike action. The social media is rife with comments with hash tag #kaikenmaailmandosentit and the academics are guessing which university is the first to hand out an honorary docentship, specified as being in the field of ‘whatever’. One respected senior professor already packed his bags and moved to Edinburgh (but I am not sure how much greener the pastures and research funding really are in UK). I am not expecting any kind of return in any time soon. More like it, I am very likely to try to make sure that my own actions will aim at strengthening humanistic research and wide collaborations. I may be working in Sweden for the next three years, but these uneducated opinions travel very easily.

Similar kind of superficial statements are apparent in my current home country UK. The parliament made a decision to bomb Syria. For my kind of old peace movement member this kind of action seems foolish, when it is almost impossible to separate between a fiend and a friend from the flying altitudes. Our understanding in the west of the Middle Eastern situation leaves wanting the best of the times, but the random figures of 70 000 moderate fighters do not improve any case for war. I for one forwarded Tony Benn’s statement against the Iraq war. That war did not take Iraq anywhere and the bombing alone does not get world rid of Daesh. It is easy to bomb when there is no apparent solution to be offered to a difficult and multilayered situation.

The current government in UK does not probably held archaeologists or any British academic equivalent to ‘whatever docents’ to high views. We are probably ‘nimbies’ who stand in the way of the progress while the nation should cover the green land in new residential estates. Yes, we need more housing, but we also need good planning and better visions. Not knowing the past or understanding other cultures or complex political situations does not lead to innovation, economic growth and sustainable visions. It leads only to short-sighted, hasty decisions and kind of lose-lose situation that turned out to be the Iraq War.

Thus, as the researcher association of my alma mater, the University of Turku, suggested on Friday: “Keep calm and love your dosentti [=docent]”. Knowledge and education are more certain ways to guarantee good governance and progress than easy loose remarks and ignorance, no matter if it is planning procedures, new policies or strategies in order to deal with difficult political situations and international aggression.