The Dead Are So Talented

A feral Scot that digs, travels and explores.

Jonathan Owen: Untitled

Walk up to the Burns Monument during the Edinburgh Art festival (hopefully becoming a permanent piece to this largely unused space) and you will find Jonathan Owen’s newest and almost-specially tailored sculptural piece sat within the monument.


One thing that immediately struck me was how the setting of the piece itself ties in with the narrative of the monument. The Burns monument is a 19th Century neoclassical monument; a cliched reminiscing monument of Greek and Roman classical structures. The original piece itself is a 19th century sculpture of a nymph, with a modesty ‘draping’ fitting for the conservative time period. Quoting a visitor to the monument, the setting and sculpture – had the object been kept original – is rather “classically generic”, giving an overall historical zeitgeist of the 19th century.

The statue, however, is reworked. In a sense, the original concept has been reworked. The upper torso of the nymph has been carved out, chest removed, and head tilting. Her body has been reformed to chains. According to the booklet, this “buckled form suggest(s) a body crumpled by two hundred years of male gaze”. This is a striking interpretation, the statue once initially being an idealised female form – an exoticism of a “mystical creature” – to a woman enchained by the patriarchy. This is further hit home when you consider the sculptor – a male artist – is the actor in the creation and reworking of the female body in question.

Thinking from a classical archaeological perspective, there is an interesting comparison and possible reinterpretation. The 19th Century Burns monument seems to be heavily designed from the Tholos in Delphi, a temple that is dedicated to Athena Pronoia, the Athena for Forethought. In a sense this temple, a temple previously dedicated to a strong female figure, was stripped and appropriated for a male poet, and Owen re-appropriates the monument back to a female form, a female statue prominently in the centre. She is broken down, but she stands, regaining her ‘space’.

The piece however also got me thinking about the other interpretations that you can deduce from the statue. I find it interesting that the allegory of chains are used when considering the historical links Robert Burns has with the slave trade and the changing perceptions of the past with previously revered individuals. In particular, I’m reminded of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ (of 1792), alongside the concept that Burns had a fleeting interest in human trafficking. By reworking an neoclassical object, a historical object contemporaneous with Burns has taken on a reinterpreted meaning from the present. In this sense, I’m brought down the thought process about the ethics of reworking older material culture to take on contemporary interpretations – should we encourage the reinterpretation of the past by reworking historical objects? What are the ethics of this with “classically generic” objects?

In any sense, I am a big fan of Owens sculptural works, and I hope to see more.

The Burns monument is on Regent Road, Edinburgh, EH7 5BL, and the exhibition is open Mon – Sun, 10am – 6pm.


Five Links to kick off archaeological inspiration for 2013

1. Digging into 2012’s archaeology – So the BBC compiled a list of the top archaeological discoveries over 2012 and we discovered just how many amazing archaeological finds actually happened in a year. Fuels the positivity in finding something amazing this year… Actually, make this years resolution to be ‘become involved in the 2013 list of archaeological finds’. Sorted.
2. The director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Campbell, gave a TED talk regarding museum and curator studies, so art historians and future curators listen up: the secret to success isn’t in the jargon you are taught to use, but to recognise the key elements of a piece, recognise it as a once contemporary piece of art and display it in that nature. Plus look at the gorgeous Alexander McQueen exhibition, innovative and informative. Perhaps we can project these views onto how we display archaeological artefacts in a museum context. And pay a visit to the museum…
3. Living in the 21st century where we have powerful technology squeezed into a handset and tablets becoming the new ‘it’ technology item, it’s high time to consider just how much we can integrate archaeology with our personal devices such as the android in our pocket, or the iPad slung in our backpack. And look not further for technological inspiration that the open source GIS system Archfield: imagine the future of fieldwork being as swift and digital as that. I would love to see this in action on sites, more creativity with technology with archaeological fieldwork and more precision with a fully integrated GIS system that will not break an archaeology project’s bank. It is within sight people. And QR coded labels, beautiful.
4. Talk of the Mayans permeated 2012, but usually about nothing more than their calendar, which is a shame, really. Because one of their most mysterious tombs were explored for the first time and the vibrant red walls are still as stunning and vivid today. So please pledge: I will reference their calendar and supposed Armageddon no more and talk incessantly about the beauty and uniqueness of the Mayan culture in the most rounded way possible.
5. Did you know Michael Shanks has a website? Well he has written a comparison of Tolkein and archaeological sites regarding art visualisation and reconstructions. Fun and imaginative, you say? Seeing as the new Hobbit is out, try look out for the little designs and general layout. Goes to show how much thought went into Tolkein’s world, and not just the linguistics. And how imagination and archaeology go hand in hand beautifully…

And that’s all for now…

Prehistoric Autopsy.

So I have abandoned this for a long time. I apologise but I have threw myself into the entire concept of university life, in my third year. It has been exciting, work has upped it’s game to a more challenging level and I also have realised that changing my degree to Archaeology was quite simply, one of the best decisions of my life.
So I shall start with an anecdote:
A few weeks ago I volunteered with the Prehistoric Autopsy Exhibition and it was my first time that I worked in a museum as an archaeologist rather than on the field. It meant adjusting your knowledge towards the public rather than discussing with your more jargon-affiliated colleagues who would know what you mean when you say ‘metatarsal’ or ‘Plio-Pleistocene’. And boy is the generalising and using more ‘public friendly’ language more difficult when you have children in the mix!
It takes real skill to firstly present a controversial topic such as evolution towards children – who may or may not be familiar at all – and then present to them a comprehensible viewpoint that the exhibition presents. To further confuse, the exhibition is with bias – it presents theories that it agrees with, omits others. As a student learning about Human Evolution, this complicated things further.
Quite often, the aims and the actual outcomes from the exhibition were quite different. Was it interactive? Yes. Was it informative? Yes, we had boards full of answers. Did the children understand the exhibition? That’s more difficult to say.
Did they really understand the ‘how’s’ and ‘whys’ or did they just have fun on the games without digesting the information on a deeper level?
Several occasions I would delve and give deeper answers and information to be met with a blank face. One of the activities was shell painting and at this activity we asked the children if they know why they were painting the shells. Many answered ‘nope’ and did not really want to know beyond that – they just wanted to paint pretty shells. Which is fair enough, mind you. Especially if you are a five year old, we did not expect them to ask about ritual and symbolism with relation to language capabilities, we did expect the mini fights over the prettier shells.
I’m unsure if the children did learn with the plethora of information that we tried to give them of they left with a few cool stickers as a badge of honour at their chimp-walking, shell making ability. I guess it’s an answer we won’t ever know.

Are you a licker?

A recent update on my university’s Archsoc group began with a link to I have lost count of the hours I have wasted procrastinating on that website. I digress. The post lead from how archaeologists have ‘balls’ to a humorous competition of ‘who has had the most dangerous dig experience’ or rather ‘who has the biggest balls’…
… And sometimes balls comes with risk factors, and sometimes, stupidity.

Which leads me to… Licking artefacts.
I once got told that, although unconventional, and unorthodox, you could lick an artefact to tell whether it was either pottery or rock. Back then I was a digging virgin, so anything that came out of the ground was potentially significant in my brain and so… I may have licked a few rocks or two. In some artefact forms, it may ask you what it tastes like. People have tasted bog butter in their past digging experiences. Must’ve tasted awful.
Then last week I was on the beach. I was lazing, “excavating” with a stick – sad, I know – when I uncovered some strange looking, weird feeling clumps. Mettallic, light, blackened clumps. Without thinking, I licked to check what it was. Aluminium, from a barbecue, I believe.
Rewind to ‘balls’ competition, where someone told an anecdote of excavating the Old Quad in Edinburgh University, where they uncovered some ‘shiny substances’… Which turned out to be the remains of an 16th C chemistry lab, and was a heady concoction of arsenic, mercury and other residues.
If I excavated there and licked something, I would have died. So please note, lickers, that licking any metalloid substance is potentially dangerous. One day it might not me aluminium or pottery, it might be some horrific death cocktail. Or just stop licking, amylase is slightly acidic and causes damage to artefacts too.
Also non-archaeologists might think you mad for licking something from the ground.

Guerilla Archaeology? Art and Visualisation

This is, quite simply, very new to me in every concept when it comes to archaeology. Admittedly, I haven’t been completely ignorant to these concepts, but it would seem that on the scale of things (and in my tuition) ‘art and visualisation’ and art in prehistory, is rarely discussed in comparison to the more ‘objective’ of archaeological evidence. A friend of mines is compiling her thesis on art and visualisation in Archaeology at Edinburgh University and it is clear that the work she is doing is very ‘off the wall’ in comparison to other theses. Of course art and visualisation is very subjective, hard to pinpoint and even more so, difficult to interpret the exact meanings and representations placed in art form.

But why should it be so feared and thrown to the side? I recently watched a video of a Tedx talk regarding this, and from experiments of art and engaging with the public, it presented a wealth of information an analysed artefact in the lab, or social activity explained through ‘activity areas’ and ‘ritual deposits’, lack.

If Millie’s Camp hasn’t already placed a great deal of worry on the worth of archaeological research, of the subjectivity on the things we perceive as ‘objective’ then the most ‘subjective’ must be considered as significant an aspect. Art is a human phenomenon, which we all can appreciate. Even if we cannot fully understand it. But a way to understand it is not in individual research but how it engages with the human population, how it reaches to others emotionally.

And also, wouldn’t we all want to become a part of the Shamanic Street Preachers?
video here

You’ll find me on Twitter…

Apologies for the silence. I have been thrown into the exam time at university and between procrastinating and revising I have not been able to update here, and furthermore this update is going to be brief and will need some fleshing out in future. The topic which I am going to handle is a massive topic and issue which I would love to come back to, and so this will be a tiny chunk out of the future massive bites out of this topic. And the topic this article concerns is Archaeology on the net.

The quickest, easiest and most global way to disseminate information is the Internet. A way to engage the public and ensure the public has access to research and findings within archaeology is to ensure it is available easily for the majority of those, and personally I believe that in order to gain public interest is to use social networking.

Accessibility to various reports, findings and documents, however is not that easy. Not everything is free to find on the Internet. Not everything is on the Internet. And many projects and research do not use this medium of communication. Take commercial units as an example: a quick google may find you a website with an email at most, and yet no indepth information regarding current nor past projects.

Yet, what I have found online, and especially on twitter, is an amazing growth of archaeology tweeters, from the fellow undergrad student, to museum establishments, heritage and trusts, local community tweeters and even the ‘digging the dirt’ archaeology gossip.

You can find my twitter at @tylerlizzie, where I have managed to find 65+ amazing archaeology tweeters, in a list. And I hope that number grows.

First Post: Greece, Archaeology and Economic Crisis

It’s obvious that Greece has a rich cultural heritage, which has shaped our Western world. It was once a centre of intellectual thought and innovation in arts, both literary, architectural and sculptural arts. Equally clear in current politics is the soaring debt of this country. And this debt crisis is changing the way its rich heritage and archaeology significantly.

One archaeologist said at a recent media event organised to protest the spending cuts imposed as a condition for the EU and IMF loans, that ”Greece’s historic remains have become our curse”. As Greece is moving further into recession, there have been massive cuts to finance archaeological research, an estimated fall of 35%. Current legislation to excavate in Greece, that you have to own the land, every item you uncover by law belongs to the government. As a volunteer to participate in fieldwork, this will mean very expensive fees, which will see increases in order to meet financial needs for academic research. Which has lead to significant declines in licensed excavation, illegal digs on the increase nearby sites and also closing of museums to the public. One out of 10 culture ministry employees have been dismissed, and 3,500 temporary staff were brought in to allow museums, sites and excavations to operate. Entire museum halls have been closed from these cuts, illegal excavations have increased significantly with ‘treasure hunters’ hoping to find relics of monetary value.

And yet, from cuts in research and the increase of illegal digs, there has been some interest in reviving Greece’s rich heritage in an international sense. Recently, Stephen Fry has voiced the campaign for the Parthenon Marbles to be reinstated in Athens,and there is a conscious move in giving back the marbles, even stated in Fry’s essay to British Government that to help “boost the morale” of Greece. And it would seem that this would be the motive to help restore and revitalize the past conception of Greece as an intellectual hub to overcome its current global humiliation. There are now clear political motives to as sympathy towards the “humiliating sovereign debt crisis [that it has] has brought”. Current restoration on major Greek sites have also been undertaken. The issue is that the sites which are being restored are at the expense of sites lesser known, for reasons of tourism and to boost the economy. But equally I would argue that in the current economic climate that  Greece is in, the restoration projects and campaigns which will hopefully be successful are tactical in providing economic boost in order to fund research in lesser known sites.

In retrospect, the crippling effects of economy on archaeological sites are clear. In historical contexts, in times of financial downturn, places were sacked, bronze melted down and  an eerie example such as Athena Parthenos’ peplos being robbed of her golden robe to pay off debts have left places barren of what could have been invaluable in our eyes today. And now we see an uncanny repetition of this effect, in a debilitating way. What is being done can be prevented by intervention and awareness. A country with the riches of the archaeological world, should never feel as if this background was a burden, solely from the economic crisis the country currently faces. The direct correlation of economy and the ability to recognize, preserve and celebrate your cultural heritage is sadly too interlinked, and Greece has now become a case study for this.