Peat, Poets and Pollen

I think I could add politics to the title of this post, but I like the triplicacy of it. I know that’s not even a word. A subtitle (if I was writing in the sort of journal that encourages them) would be: being a better poet would make me a better archaeologist.

This post might be a little half-baked but I want to get it down and out to the world while I have the impetus. I have been missing the urge to write, so I am inclined to indulge it in its half-born form rather than let it wait for ‘perfection’ and perhaps never arrive.

I had some interconnected minor epiphanies on the way home from the library tonight. To give this some context, I am in the final throes of my corrections as well as working full-time, and have been having the week from hell at work. My corrections have a final deadline of the 20th of August but I want them done by the 9th as I am going to Malta for a week with my internal examiner, and I want to go over them there with him as he’s staying on much past me with the project. This is because I have a tight deadline between my deadline for corrections, and my deadline for getting my thesis accessioned into the library if I want to graduate this year (er, YES!). So… that’s why I was in the Hartley library ’till 21:00 this evening.

I’d also managed to totally kill the batteries of my electronic gadgets earlier in the day- I ran my iPod out listening to 30 Seconds to Mars who are my lifeline during software testing. My phone just died (due to me not charging it last night), so no internet, no texts, no phone calls. I am not for a minute one of those people who thinks that creativity is stifled by ‘always on’ communication devices or music. I don’t think the lack of these devices allowed me to have more or better ideas,  but not being able to tweet the flurry of thoughts as they occurred allowed me to think on them more deeply. Deprived of the means to disseminate the idea immediately on conception, I had time to ruminate and let it mature, at least a bit. I still think the idea/s are a bit half baked, but here goes (in somewhat more than 140 characters)…

I am hopping all over the literature on peat, wetland archaeology, human interaction with the landscape and some very technical/hard science topics like paleoclimatology in order to get my corrections done. This meant that this evening I went from reading about bogs, more specifically bog bodies and their appearance in literature, poetry and more especially Seamus Heaney, to a discourse on the ritual deposition of other things in peat and water, to the nature of those peat deposits, their chemical characteristics and finally to the reconstruction of how those deposits formed from looking at pollen sequences. The juxtapositions of the texts struck me; on the one hand very personal, situated discussions of poetry and personal encounter, but within an archaeological frame, to cold hard science at the other end. But between these ends there are threads that connect and interconnect. There was just so much to read though, to grasp them all.

I often think that archaeology (and I would guess other disciplines, but I don’t know) has become too specialised, too fragmentary. Even fields within fields such as the study of prehistoric metalwork split into their own groups, and then all proceed to attack the same questions from their own particular angle. I think I am quite lucky- I did fairly broad ‘A’ levels, and then went to a post-processual department to do my BA and MSc that struck a good balance between the theory and the practice, the thinking and the doing. I’ve commented at times that I felt like my PhD was too much in the practice camp, and too removed from the theory at times, but I found ways to bring it back to a blend I was comfortable with.

I feel like I need to soak up some theory though. I want to go back and rather than picking over Pollards edited volume on Prehistoric Britain, like a magpie grabbing the shiny bits that fit, I want to savour it, to read it at leisure and see where else it takes me. I want to stay stubbornly a multidisciplinarian; archaeologist first, geophysicist/mapping person second. People have lately asked me to define myself by a period, a theme of research, a scientific practice. I am not totally a prehistorian- my MSc thesis was on Greenham Common. I am not ‘just’ a geophysics expert I also know about GIS and its role in archaeology, and though I am not a good dirt archaeologist (my drawing skills aren’t up to scratch) I am good at topographic and landscape survey. I think if pushed, I would say the bits that really get me fired up and interested (apart from all of it!) are the way humans have in the past, and continue to, live within and shape and be shaped by the landscape.

But this is getting off the point. And you can see why it needed a bit more than a few tweets to fully articulate!

My underlying point is this: I think too much specialisation is bad for our discipline. It seems to be a symptom of the times. Where are all the renaissance men? The great thinkers who were also poets, artists or mathematicians? Why is it strange to some archaeologists that I am also fascinated by emerging web technologies and the intersections between science and art? I will concede we need the brilliance of minds that can remember, compare, contrast and analyse the minute difference between pottery traditions or stone tool technologies, but we also need people who can put it all together. Sometimes they are the same people and we need them most of all. I will freely admit to being a ‘big picture’ person, shallow and broad. I have to work hard to get the depth. I have recently become good friends with a few north american researchers who go for the breadth and then the depth- not specialising until well into their academic careers while we seem to start ruling things out when we are 14 with our GCSE choices (or did when I was at school; it’s a while ago now!). I am inclined to think that their way might be better seeing how much more they know about writing, literary theory and philosophy, despite my philosophy A level.

There is a connected realisation. Reading about Heaney and his Bog Poems, his very personal encounter with Tollund Man, made me think of my dad, and his recent obsession with Prynne. Prynne is a ‘difficult’ poet, but he references the bog, and bodies as well. Dad rang me a couple of times to pick my brain about peat and archaeology and bodies and preservation when he was working his way through some Prynne (he blogs about it here and here). My dad is a renaissance man, in the way I meant earlier. He knows a lot, about a lot of things, and thinks both deeply and broadly about them, making connections and drawing nuances and inferences from all over the place. Sometimes I think if I read forever I will never catch up with him. He’s done all this on his own though, a self taught man (something he blogs about here). We had a discussion a while back about ‘unstrung pearls of knowledge’ and the image has stuck.  He often jokes that he would only go to university if they would let him study just the Faerie Queene, by Spenser, and nothing else. He devoted a considerable effort one summer to work out when we first started eating salad (not ‘sallets’ as eaten by Peyps, but something we’d recognise as a salad). I don’t know what he found out. He is a poet himself, and loves to pick apart language.  I think that in the multi- layered, resonant language of poetry, and the decoding of it, we can find analogues to archaeology and the decoding of objects and places, and our own resonances with them. I need to finish reading Gaston Bachelard on the poetics of space to be certain though.

This is more an observation than a point, but it leads me to strongly think that if I was a better poet, I’d be a better archaeologist.

And Dad, if you are reading, I realise there are better places to point to than wikipedia a sources but I’ve included the links as jumping off points for people who might not know as many poets or obscure French philosophers as you. And I’ll get back to you on the epistemology and lived/ experience bodily knowledge thing. It has struck an archaeological chord… and I haven’t watched Walden yet. Sorry. As I say, all the reading in the world and I won’t catch up…

4 thoughts on “Peat, Poets and Pollen

  1. Nice post. I too am having troubled thoughts about the fragmentation of archaeological theory, and also the seeming lack of exposure many writers of archaeological theory have to a broader set of literature (or at least avoid referencing it). This leads to some very dry stuff indeed, and perhaps an over emphasis on too narrow a set of ideas.
    Anyway – thanks again – I doubt you will appreciate it this far into the correction phase, but speaking of bog bodies, have you come across the Grimm tale of Iron John? ( – I use wiki as a reference with the same qualifications as yourself.

  2. As the Renaissance man mentioned, I think I’d better respond. First off, I think that all bodies of knowledge must try harder to learn from and engage with other stuff whether it be literature or neuroscience. This is essential if each subject is to avoid becoming blinkered and arid. I’m not advocating a ‘theory of everything’ approach but it is always useful to identify more useful ways of describing things. Second, I don’t know a lot about anything (apart perhaps from a few obscure corners of British history) but I try and know a little about most things and this leads to the connections that you talk about which kind of sustain me in making sense of things. Thirdly, whilst Bachelard is very, very good, there is no substitute for reading poetry about what it’s like to be ’embodied’ in the landscape and the best on this is Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ which is 600 pages long but utterly wonderful. Prynne would argue that Wordsworth is pretty useful too (he does this at great length) but I’m not so sure.
    The final point relates to the ‘unstrung pearls’ thing which is Bourdieu’s put-down and not mine. He is unarguably right about issues of cultural ‘taste’ but I would like to have a very long chat with him with regard to the auto-didact thing. He is, however, dead.

  3. Pingback: Childhood books, prehistory and place « Girl with Trowel

  4. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology: My Best and Worst | Girl with Trowel

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