Blogging Archaeology: why on earth?

First of all, updatelet: I headed off to Italy in mid-September and was there until the start of November, and then I went to the UK for 2 weeks to have a bit of a rest. At some point soon there will be a huge #project52 update with fieldwork photos and stories. But for now, I need to write a short post if I am going to manage to join in an archaeology blogging carnival that Doug over at Doug’s Archaeology is organising ahead of the SAA meeting this year. Now there is no way I can get to SAA, but I can contribute to the session on blogging in archaeology by joining in here.

First up: as usual, a disclaimer. I’m not sure this is an archaeology blog. I didn’t set out to do that; it’s more that this is my blog, and that archaeology is a big part of me.

So! On with the November questions, before December arrives.

Why blogging? – Why did you, or if it was a group- the group, start a blog? 

I’ve rambled at length on here about why I got into archaeology, but not really in detail about how and why the blog got started. I did my MSc in Computing and Archaeology at Southampton, alongside my good friend and avid blogger Cas. At the time, she was a very active blogger and had a rich community of people hanging about on her site, talking about all sorts of things. I went to Italy at the end of my Masters to work on my first ever commercial geophysics project, and started using Flickr to share pictures with friends and family while I was gone. At the time, I used email to stay in touch and send out links to the pictures, but realised that a blog would be a much better place to do that. I think this is why this has never felt like an ‘academic’ blog. I mean, there have been times when I’ve commented on a current issue or talked a bit more in depth about my work, but essentially this is just me rambling at the universe, with mostly my Mum listening.

I think my tweets (especially when on fieldwork) and my flickr page are a bit more archaeology focused than the blog.

Why are you still blogging?

Looking back in the archives (eyes right people), I’ve been doing this since about this time in 2006. Ironically, I’d just arrived back from almost 2 months in Italy then too! I think my reasons remain the same: to have a place to dump my thoughts, to share what I am up to with friends and family, to reach out and talk to people I studied with or was taught by. When I started I was about to spend 3 years doing a PhD in a different city, living away during the week. Almost 3 years ago I moved to the Netherlands for a post doc, for at least 3 years, and the blog became even more important. I go through phases of writing almost compulsively, and phases where I don’t feel like I have anything much to stay, but I think one way or another the blog is going to keep going. I’m hoping that taking part in the carnival will give me some topics to focus in on, and to be more confident about writing about archaeology, especially when it comes to explaining my own ideas.

Rounding off the year

I haven’t blogged since July?!

I knew I’d been neglecting you, but that is a long time.

The ends of things always get me thinking, and not only is the year coming to an end, my PhD experience is as well. It’s all done now, including the graduating. I went to our school Christmas meal and realised it’s probably the last one I’ll go to- by this time next year the people I know best will all have finished too and it will be mainly people I don’t know. I’m all moved out of the office as well, and about to loose my academic email address and with it my ‘institutional affiliation’ – an odd place to be for a self-professed academic (well one that is starting out anyway).

Fortunately for me ends are also beginings, and after almost exactly a year I’ll be starting to work for a University again in February. Not in an Archaeology department, but as a technician in a Geography department, helping to teach exactly the same science, but with different applications and research questions. I am really looking forward to it. I am hoping that the next four weeks are the last time I ever have a ‘formal’ dress code at work! Ok, that’s the most flippant of reasons, but the thought of going to work in comfy shoes and not needing to buy clothes that I would only ever wear in the office is rather nice.

One of the reasons I’ve not blogged is my current job- I was due to finish in September but my contract was extended for another three months, thankfully. But at the outset they were pretty clear I couldn’t talk much about work. Add that to previously mentioned concerns re potential employers and examiners and I was pretty nervous about saying the wrong things. It’s easier to keep it non-specific on twitter where you only get 140 characters to get into trouble with!

I’ve also been ‘limping’ along in academic terms. Some stuff happened earlier in the year, that I’m not going into detail on, but it knocked me for six right at the time I should have had a major boost from my Viva, and it’s taken a while to recover from. I pretty much wasn’t my usual healthy self until September and then job hunting took back over. Now that things are settled and I have a permanent job, it’s time to stop just pootling along, and to start trying to make some things happen. I wrote back in June about this, about needing to make every day count, but I just wasn’t able to back then.

So, since I last wrote… some bad things happened, but some good things did too! I went to Malta and worked with an amazing team on a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the second one of my career which is pretty awesome), then in September I made my final submission and everything was approved. October was Matt’s birthday and lots of job hunting, November was graduation and playing silly games in a Castle almost in Wales (and for once without deadlines looming), December saw the NSGG conference at Burlington House and me finally restarting the driving lessons, and a whole lot of thinking about where we go from here.

There are a couple of things I want to write about at the moment. Malta is one of them, and some ideas about geophysics, geoarchaeology and landscape archaeology & theory is another. I also plan my now traditional (and mainly broken) new year resolutions round up.

Neko out, for now x

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…

Entering the home straight

I had my PhD viva a month ago, and have minor corrections to complete by the 20th of August. Then it goes to Senate, and once they say ‘Yes’ I can officially call myself Dr Kayt Armstrong. Which is all a bit awesome really.

I am acutely aware that the last 6 months of my life have been very chaotic and I have been through a whirlwind of emotions and tumult. There were times that I thought I’d never finish it and submit, let alone get through the viva.

Then, after I finished, I thought at times that I had totally messed my life up by doing the PhD at all: The first half of 2010 was NOT a good time to be trying to get a job in the South East of the UK. I temped a lot, and then finally landed a 6 month contract doing IT stuff for a legal firm. I applied for some archaeology stuff, but either I picked the wrong jobs, or my pitch was off- nothing came of it either way. I have been reluctant to blog about the job-thing because I was worried about what potential employers would think of my despair!

I try not to write when I am down as it’s not healthy, and at the end of the day, I don’t want this blog to be about all of that stuff. I might have a whine on twitter when having a bad day, but the internet is NOT the place to deal with life stuff.

So, 6 months of a job that will keep my brain going, teach me some useful skills and pay the bills. 2 months to do my corrections, finish the last of my statutory reporting (I still have to do a bit of official reports, but was waiting for any input my examiners had before I finalised things). 6 months to start pitching towards post-doctoral research projects. 6 months to make it happen. It feels fantastic to have finished, but there are still several mountains to climb.  Sometimes I think that being a grown up is realising that it won’t all be over when you meet that deadline, that there is always more to do.

A lot of people get that it won’t all be plain sailing from now on; but I also have to explain, a lot, to people that just because I will soon be Dr Kayt, it doesn’t mean that an academic role, a lecturing job, even an archaeology-job is going to fall into my lap. I will still have to spend lots of time writing, working, and being stressed about it all. And I am working full time, so it will have to be during all this free time that finishing the PhD was supposed to create!

I feel a bit lost without a plan, so I am trying to get back into the mindset I had during the last 5 years of study (and especially on my MSc, when I was working 32 hours a week as well as studying). I need to plan my time, I need to work out long in advance how long things will take. So, apologies in advance – being spontaneous might still be tricky for me!

I have had some fun, spontaneous times- we went to Holland, to see my little brother, and to watch 30 Seconds to Mars. I have had some damn fine meals out, and been out dancing. I think I’ve forgotten how to socialise, but I am sure it will come back!

So why the rambling entry? I think I am trying to push myself into being more organised, writing my own personal diary more often, and doing the planning thing, by declaring it publicly it feels more real. I have had a lot of false starts over the last few months, days when I have woken up and said ‘new routine as of now’ and busted all my own rules by the end of the day. The scary truth is that I have 5 months or so to come up with a way to make it all work, and ensure I keep the PhD momentum going. I can’t do that by stumbling through each week, waiting for the weekend and just getting through. Each day needs to count. Starting now.

So, um, I kinda finished the PhD

The doorstop that is my thesis

Lola is victorious

People who follow me on twitter/facebook/really know me (which I think is 100% of the readership here!) will already know, but a month ago I finally submitted my thesis.

It has taken that long for me to start to feel vaguely normal; it was an intensely stressful period, the final five weeks, and I don’t particularly want to talk or think about it still.

I have promised myself that when I get a date for my viva, I will think about it, but for now I am concerning myself with much more mundane, but vital things. Such as finding a job.

On Monday I have an interview I am really excited about, and I am probably jinxing it horribly by admitting this on the internet. It is for a project using GIS in Historical Geography; related to what us archaeologists do, and I am certainly hoping my skills are similar and transferable. It seems so from the job-spec, so we’ll see.

The job would work so well, in so many ways. I am trying very hard not to hope too much, so we’ll see. In the meantime I am temping, but for a local social landlord, rather than for corporate evil. 9-5 data entry is not a lot of fun, but we need to eat!

I am slowly trying to come back from the hermit-like place I ended up in towards the end of the PhD, but slowly is the key word. I have PhD related things to do too, like finishing up some of the reporting to English Heritage and other interested parties, and at some point getting it all published! There is the second Greenham paper too, and I am committed to getting the PhD data archived somehow, hopefully with the ADS, all of which need work and attention.

I also have to finish learning to drive- it is so frustrating, I was about a month/six weeks away from being able to do my test when the PhD crunch hit, and now I am too broke, until our finances recover a bit from being being income-less for about 10 weeks.

So why the post? I am trying to get some sort of routine back, that doesn’t involve collapsing in exhaustion and not bothering to do anything because I am so used to saying ‘no, I have to work on my thesis’ that I have forgotten how to do anything else. It does need to be cheap though! I hate missing all the birthdays and fin in Bournemouth, but it is just beyond me at the moment. Blogging is a way of being back ‘out there’ and open to social contact. Bring it on!

I have been doing some things, like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year, and having the prettiest tea I have ever been served:

Chinese tea

Pretty tea!

(which wordpress refuses to rotate and I refuse to re-upload, sorry)

… and helping a friend with her geophysical surveys on Salisbury Plain:

Neko on Salisbury Plain

... the ubiquitous fieldwork shot

Neko out (and about!)