Family heirloom

When you look at one or, better still, pick one up it’s not hard to understand why fossilised sea urchins (echinoids) have for many thousands of years been viewed by people as special objects. I have an interest in them because they appear as grave goods in the prehistoric archaeological record, for example at the Whitehawk Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Sussex. They’ve been collected and utilised in various ways right back as far as the Palaeolithic up until the present and there are many beliefs in folklore about these aesthetically pleasing fossils, known as shepherd’s crowns or thunderstones, which are believed to variously bring luck and ward off the Devil. A nice summary of the history of fossil collecting by Dr Ken McNamara of the University of Cambridge can be found here.

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The echinoid pictured is, I only discovered yesterday, an heirloom of my family’s. When I was a child my grandparents lived at the other end of the road to us and my grandpa was often to be found working in his sizeable vegetable garden at the bottom of the orchard that separated it from my grandparents’ house at the top of the slope. I mostly remember the apple and pear trees and the gooseberries, runner beans, carrots and potatoes but I know Grandpa tended many other crops too. One day my dad was digging in the vegetable patch and came across this fossil. He took it to show Grandpa who said, “Oh yes, that’s a shepherd’s crown. I buried it in the garden for luck”. Some years later, after Grandpa had sadly passed on, my dad was digging in the vegetable patch and again turned up the shepherd’s crown; Grandpa had obviously buried it once again to bring good luck to the garden crops.

Today the orchard and vegetable patch are no longer there as they’ve been built upon but my dad has kept the shepherd’s crown safely in his home – which is the same house that my grandpa lived in (and indeed built). Unfortunately we’ll never know how Grandpa came to have the shepherd’s crown in his possession or whether it had perhaps been handed down to him but I think it still qualifies as a rather special family heirloom.

Further reading

https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/Archive/June-2012/Prehistoric-fossil-collectors

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/the-star-crossed-stone-the-secret-life-myths-and-history-of-a-fascinating-fossil/414873.article

http://www.discoveringfossils.co.uk/echinoids.htm

http://bunnymitchell.yolasite.com/sussex-folklore.php

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2451.1998.014004142.x/abstract

Keeping to time

PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images.(http://www.pechakucha.org/faq).

How hard can it be? I’m doing one of these presentations at a conference next week and, in a strange sort of way, I’m looking forward to it. I like a challenge and there is a definite element of challenge involved in trying to make your words fit to the timings and therefore to the correct slides. Not only that, but in trying to set the right tone and to make it interesting and informative.

I obviously haven’t been to enough conferences during my time as a student as I’ve not personally witnessed a PechaKucha session before so, somewhat typically for me, my first one will also be the first one I present one at. My initial observation is that it takes much longer to prepare a PechaKucha than it does a regular presentation. It’s also much more visual which, on the face of it, is a good thing for me as I’m a visual learner and a keen photographer with an extensive library of pictures of my own to call on for illustrative purposes. However, it’s the format that takes the real skill to put together. I’ve watched some examples on YouTube and tried to use similar concepts to the ones that seemed to be most effective, as far as I could tell. However, I won’t really know if I’ve got it right until the day. It does seem, though, that the main thing is to be clear about what you want to convey and to keep it simple. Oh, and to get the timing right or it’ll make no sense whatsoever and just confuse anyone who is listening!

So here I am with a week or so to go and I’ve got my 20-slide presentation in place, saved and backed-up. I’ve written out 20 little crib sheets with the rough wording I plan to use for each slide, to use as prompts rather than a script (as seems to be the advice, from what I’ve seen). All that remains is to practice and practice and practice some more to get the right words in the right place at the right time. And then hope for the best!

Dots per inch

Or dpi. Despite being a keen amateur photographer, this is not something I’ve paid much (well, any) attention to until this week. However, in order to submit an entry to my university’s Images of Research exhibition, I needed to come up with an image with at least 300 dpi resolution. I take a lot of photographs and, having just checked my Flickr photostream,where I put the ones I like, I found more than 4000 on there. My main interest photographically is wildlife and I have plenty of photos of animals doing something interesting that I could have used, if my research had been about that.

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However, because my research is about burial practice in the Neolithic, it largely involves looking through old archives and any photographs I’ve taken are mostly indoor ones of human remains and paperwork for memory jogging purposes at this stage (although this will be supplemented by a number of better quality photographs in due course for specific projects).

Maybe if I was better at the technical side of photography I could have worked out how to change the dpi for the better? I don’t have Photoshop although I do have now defunct, I believe, Picasa and I did try a couple of collages, which was fun…

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Dem Bones

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Funny the receptacles you find human remains in sometimes

…but still dpi-challenged. So, anyway, I’ve submitted one of the couple of suitable photographs I found in my research collection with 300 dpi (link to follow). It wouldn’t have been my first choice but I think at least it kind of conveys an interesting aspect of my work and I’m glad to have managed an entry at all as I think the exhibition is a wonderful idea. Next year I will be better prepared though!

Reinter-esting

During the course of my research I often come across interesting things that aren’t necessarily relevant but stick in my mind anyway – and often send me off on tangents of discovery. Lately I’ve been writing up a session I’m teaching on burial practice in the early Neolithic. This has turned out to be a useful exercise in re-evaluating the literature review from my PhD upgrade and identifying things that could be added or changed for my final thesis, which is a work in progress. It was while doing a section on skeletonisation and disarticulation that a couple of examples of the re-interment of human remains came back to me.

The first one was Jackbarrow (aka Jackbarroew), a long barrow at Duntisbourne Abbots in Gloucestershire. It was opened in 1875 and destroyed so that a rickyard could be built in its place (I had to look rickyard up; it’s a farm yard where hayricks/stacks are stored). When I Googled “jackbarrow” I got more Johnny Depp than I’d bargained for and also discovered that there’s an author called Jack Barrow who’s written a book called The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil, “a hard drinking occult adventure with gambling and trouser issues”. “Imagine Douglas Adams writing a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Occult” it says on Amazon, but I digress (although I may well give it a read).

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The re-interred human remains of Jackbarrow lie here

Anyway, the mound was originally thought to have been a round barrow but later excavations led to a revised interpretation of a false entrance long barrow extending to about 156 ft (47 m) in length with possible lateral chambers. When the barrow was excavated, the human remains from within it were removed and then reinterred in the churchyard of St Peter’s at Duntisbourne Abbots. The burial place is marked with a cross constructed of stones from the barrow itself and inscribed with the words: These rough stones taken from the barrow Jack Barrow Farm cover the human remains found therein when it was opened in 1875. At first I tutted at the burial of non-Christians in this way but then I thought, what else would they have done in the 19th century? And at least they afforded these prehistoric people a dignified place of rest.

Mind you, not all the human remains from Jackbarrow were reinterred in the churchyard. A number of them were taken to the Nailsworth Mechanics’ Institute and the skull of one is apparently on display today in the Museum in the Park in Stroud. The institute in Nailsworth, incidentally, was one of a type of philanthropic endeavour set up in the 19th century to educate working men and keep them away from the evils of drinking and gambling.

The second case of reinterment I recalled was that of the bodies from the crypt of St George the Martyr in Southwark, London. As is usually the case with churches, it has a chequered history of repairs and rebuilds, starting from its first inception at the beginning of the 12th century, and in 1732 the building was in such a bad way that it was deemed too ‘dangerous for the inhabitants of the Parish to attend the Worship of God therein’ and an Act of Parliament authorised the building of a replacement, which was completed in 1735. In 1899, for some reason, the crypt was cleared out and 1,484 coffins were removed and re-interred an hour away at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey. Brookwood was once the biggest cemetery in the world and remains the biggest in western Europe. Since it opened for business in 1854, 250,000 people have been buried there, so I guess in 1899 a few more wasn’t going to make too much difference. In the case of the St George the Martyr burials, the area where they were relaid to rest is marked with a monumental replica of the obelisk in St George’s Circus, Southwark bearing the inscription: IN MEMORIUM. THE HUMAN REMAINS FROM THE CRYPT OF THE CHURCH OF ST GEORGE THE MARTYR, SOUTHWARK, WERE RE-INTERRED IN THIS SITE OCTOBER 1899 IN ACCORDANCE WITH AN ORDER IN COUNCIL. The replica seems a thoughtful way of uniting the old parish and resting place with the new. Unfortunately, however, the ground below the monument has subsided in the intervening years (indeed the ground at Brookwood is generally somewhat spongy) and the obelisk now languishes on the ground.

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Memorial to the burials from the crypt at St George the Martyr, Southwark

Further reading

http://www.brookwoodcemetery.com/

http://www2.glos.ac.uk/bgas/tbgas/v079/bg079069.pdf

Pastscape – Jackbarrow

http://www.stgeorge-themartyr.co.uk/history/

Photograph of Jackbarrow grave reproduced with kind permission from Dorothy Prosser (http://circleoftheyear.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=jack+barrow)

Photograph of St George the Martyr memorial: author’s own Brookwood Cemetery: an album

 

Time after time

Back in my youth I often fired-off letters to my MPs, voicing my opinions about various things ranging from animal welfare to legislation that seemed, to me, out-of-step with modern times. Back in those pre-email days this always resulted in hand-signed responses on nice letter-heading, but rarely with satisfactory content due mainly to my living in Conservative constituencies where the MPs’ views were usually contrary to my own. Pictured is a reply from Douglas Hogg, then in the Home Office, that came via my MP, telling me what I already knew about marriage legislation. Happily, another Conservative MP, Gyles Brandreth, managed to get the legislation changed and since then people have had more choice than the previous purely binary one of religious or non-religious ceremonies in a church or registry office, a choice that was often abused by the non-religious wanting a marriage in an attractive setting, I felt (despite not being a religious person myself; it just felt a bit disrespectful).

Similarly, these days there are now a number of options for legally dealing with the dead, both in keeping with religious beliefs and those based on other considerations. These include traditional burial, cremation, green/woodland/natural burials, home burial, body donation, sea burial, mummification, and a number of procedures using new technology such as bio-cremation, cryomation, promession and cryonic preservation. Variety of options available is, I think, a good thing, as it reflects the diversity in society. It also puts me in mind of the Neolithic period during which, the archaeological record shows, bodies were disposed of in a number of places, such as barrows and tombs, causewayed enclosures, flint mines and caves, and different burial practices were taking place including individual and group burials, excarnation, diarticulation, cremation, perhaps cannibalism, and the inclusion or omission of grave goods.

The one-off long barrow columbarium at All Cannings in Wiltshire, built two years ago, and the recently built round barrow, Willow Row in Cambridgeshire, constructed by a company, Sacred Stones Ltd, which is planning to build more of these, are interesting developments. In our increasingly irreligious society it is understandable that people may seek a more fitting send-off in keeping with their personal beliefs, feelings and interests. With my archaeologist’s hat on, my first thought in both cases was, “Cool! A prehistoric barrow!” I mean, what better place for someone immersed in the study of prehistoric mortuary practice to sign-up for? Nice location, has an ancient ‘feel’ – and All Cannings is even aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. Perfect! Or is it? It probably depends on what the point of body disposal is. Is it for the deceased or for those left behind? Or connected to those previously deceased? Arguably, it is about providing an appropriate, respectful ceremonial send-off that is also comforting to the bereaved and provides an ongoing link between them and the deceased. In prehistory mortuary practice has been interpreted multifactorially: as providing the living with ongoing links and access to their ancestors, but also as a means of expressing ownership and continuity, and providing markers and ritual foci in the landscape.

Several thousand years on, we clearly live in different times and it’s probably fair to say that we have different concerns with increasingly less in the way of belief binding us together than might have been the case in prehistoric times, although, of course, we can’t know that. Toby Angel, co-director of Willow Row, describes it as “a secular space full of faith” and, although I haven’t visited the barrow, looking at the press coverage and photographs, I can understand how its design and location may be particularly conducive to peace and reflection. Physically, then, it seems to tick quite a few boxes as a special place of rest and remembrance and, (a little) like the wedding example, for some people this will be the overriding concern. However, for others I wonder if the significance of a locality would be more important? To keep your ancestors within the place or community in which they lived rather than in a nice location with no deeper meaning?

Stoney Littleton long barrow c.3500 BC

The barrows of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, be they long, round or oval, are appreciated by many for their antiquity and their mystery. Their continued presence in our landscape today links us back through time with the people who built them and inhabited these isles thousands of years ago, and equally with those in the intervening years – including us, today – who have continued to use them for their own reasons, shared folklore about them, and encountered them in the landscape. Some would say that the barrows at All Cannings and Willow Row are a noble endeavour in that they provide a beautiful option within the suite of choices available and that they tap into a desire by some to feel more at one with the landscape in the way it is perceived that people seemed to in simpler, past times. However, others would argue that they are in the realm of the theme park, stylistically pleasing but inauthentic.

When it comes down to it, particularly for something as important and emotive as this, it can, of course, only be about personal choice. Now that my initial excitement at the creation of these modern-day monuments has passed, my personal view is that barrows are of their time, not ours, and I wonder whether it would be better to design something that meets the needs of those of us seeking “a secular space full of faith” that is different but of our time?

We’re all the same underneath

Throughout my working life every job I’ve held has involved ‘dealing with the public’, a phrase often found in job descriptions and something I have always actively enjoyed, meeting people and chatting with them, sharing views and experiences, and learning from them. Equally, I don’t mind when it gets a bit tricky. Indeed, one job I previously held in the NHS required me to regularly deal with complaints, either in person or over the ‘phone – usually with no prior warning – during my boss (a hospital director)’s frequent absences. I relished these opportunities to get to the bottom of people’s issues and take action to put things right where necessary.

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some archaeology open days during which I lay out a skeleton and remain on-hand to talk with visitors about that particular individual or the study of human remains and mortuary practice in general, whatever comes up. During these events I’ve had visits from a fair few members of the public now and I’ve noticed that their responses broadly fit into three categories – not, I should stress, based on any kind of formal study, but informally on my first-hand observations and impressions.

FullSizeRender (20)The most common type of reaction I have witnessed is that is of interest and fascination. Classes of primary school children are particularly enjoyable visitors, I find: loud and bursting with enthusiasm. Buoyed by their study of prehistory at school I’ve witnessed the awe of a row of children gazing at the skull of an actual Iron Age person. They ask so many questions (usually simultaneously): “Is that a real skeleton?”, “What’s that bone there?”, “What’s her name?”, “How old is he?” and some hang around for the entire visit asking more questions, considering the answers and then asking more. It really is a joy to behold! Equally rewarding is the reaction of adult visitors who are genuinely interested and want to talk about where the individual was found, how you can work out their sex and age, how long ago they lived, and so on and so forth. My favourite comment recently was from an Egyptian visitor who said they thought it was great to see a skeleton on display  as it’s educational and shows that “we’re all the same underneath”.

Although naturally quite a squeamish person, I have never had issues with human skeletal remains myself, however, it is a fact that there are people who do have a problem and would rather not see them. To this end, there is always a notice outside the room I am based in stating that there are human remains inside so that visitors can make an informed decision about whether they wish to see them or not. I am always situated separately to the rest of the archaeological stands so that the human remains can easily be avoided. Despite the warning sign outside, I still notice the occasional person recoiling a little when they see the laid-out skeleton and when this happens I leave them be so they don’t feel any pressure to linger or interact. I think there are various reasons for this type of reaction, one being that death generally is a taboo in our society and not something we’re very open about. Another is that things going on in a person’s life at the time or previously, such as serious illness or bereavement for example, may trigger an understandable emotional response. I’m sure there are other reasons too as anything to do with death is, of course, emotive by its very nature. I am also very aware that in general people don’t often have access to human skeletons so they may be seeing one for the first time when they wander along to my table. Sometimes people just stare at the skeleton for a minute, deep in thought, saying nothing. Interestingly, an elderly visitor recently remarked that it used to be that people actually expected to see human remains on permanent display and, as such, it was the accepted norm whereas it does not seem as common these days.FullSizeRender (23)

The third type of response I have witnessed is from those who are unhappy with the notion of human remains being excavated or displayed at all and would like to make this point. I suppose, for me, this harks back a bit to that previous job of mine and I see it as an opportunity to find out where they are coming from and to talk over the issues. Some people make a connection between the laid-out skeleton and deceased loved ones of their own who have been buried and they feel uncomfortable for moral, cultural or religious reasons with the concept of burials being disturbed, and I can certainly appreciate this point of view. Others don’t agree with human remains being on display at all. One visitor quite openly said to me (as they briefly waited with their interested friend) that they just didn’t want to see skeletons. For my part, I have taken these opportunities to explain that the human remains in the particular collection I’m working with were excavated a long time ago and are prehistoric and therefore not relatable to people living today. I have also expressed my view that rather than leaving the human remains boxed away in storage, as they have been for decades, I feel it actually affords these individuals more dignity to find out about them through osteoarchaeology and research and to tell their story as far as possible.

The subject of public mortuary archaeology is one that continues to be discussed (see Further Reading, below) but for this brief blog I have purposely focused purely on my own personal experience specifically relating to the temporary, uncased, display of human remains in an open day setting. My feeling is that it’s a complicated topic to address and it’s difficult to find an approach that works for everyone. I hate to offend people and I understand and sympathise with those who would rather not be exposed to human remains. However, overall I feel the interest I have witnessed from the majority of visitors to my display to date, both adults and children, makes it seem very worthwhile, particularly in terms of education, breaking down barriers and encouraging discussion. Although I am unable to quantify how many people choose not to enter the room due to the warning sign outside, equally I don’t know how many are in fact encouraged to enter by virtue of the same sign. In my view, visitors are being given an opportunity to observe archaeology at its most intimate, to share in the knowledge that we can glean from human remains and learn a bit about the processes involved in this, and to understand better the lives of our ancestors and hence ourselves as human beings. And so long as the feelings and needs of those who are uncomfortable with human remains are properly taken into account and the human remains themselves are treated with dignity and respect it seems okay to me – but I’m very much open to talking it over.

Suggested Further Reading

Giesen, M. 2013 Curating Human Remains: caring for the dead in the United Kingdom, Woodbridge: Boydell

Mays, S. 2010 (2nd ed.) The Archaeology of Human Bones, London: Routledge

Sayer, D. 2010b ‘Who’s afraid of the dead? Archaeology, modernity and the death taboo’, World Archaeology 42(3), 481-91

Williams, H. and Atkin, A. 2015 Virtually dead: digital public mortuary archaeology, Internet Archaeology 40. http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue40/7/4/index.html

 

No gain without pain

I’ve mentioned before that my research is primarily concerned with the demographic aspects of mortuary practice and that, due to the nature of my data set, I am involved in the assessment of skeletal remains and this includes recording and describing any pathology noted during the course of this. To a hypochondriac like me it is fascinating to have little glimpses into the day-to-day health matters of people who lived during the Neolithic period and to contemplate how their experience of such things would have differed from ours in the modern day.

Schmorl's node

Vertebra with Schmorl’s node

Take Schmorl’s nodes, for example, which seem quite prevalent in the vertebrae I’ve looked at so far. I know from my day job in the healthcare sector (which, I should point, out is administrative and not clinical) that these protrusions of intervertebral disc cartilage are often incidental findings on spinal x-rays today and are not usually thought to be responsible for back pain per se, but result from conditions that are, such as osteoporosis and Scheuermann’s disease (Resnick, 2002, 1430). Having said that, acute cases can become inflamed and hence painful. Being myself over the age in which these are most usually found in people, for all I know I have Schmorl’s nodes myself. However, as would often also have been the case in the Neolithic, I am blissfully unaware of this potential diagnosis and not knowingly suffering any back pain specifically as a result of them at present.

Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, which is regularly seen in the osteoarchaeological record and has been appearing in the skeletal remains in my study, would undoubtedly have  been an unpleasant condition in the Neolithic, as now, causing painful and stiff joints. Without anti-inflammatory or painkilling drugs and indeed the joint replacement surgery available to us today, people probably just had to live with the pain and struggle on in spite of it, limping and cursing as it gradually deteriorated. That is, unless they had effective pain-relieving remedies of their own and there has been some consideration of medicinal drugs and intoxicants in the Neolithic such as opium poppies, fungi and even alcohol (Smith & Brickley, 2009, 134-136) . In a study of health and disease in prehistory, 10.2% of the Neolithic  sample, that is 79 out of 772 individuals, were reported as having osteoarthritis. However, the available data wasn’t sufficient to identify the factors behind this joint disease, which could potentially have been due to ageing, occupational activities or trauma (Roberts & Cox, 2003, 70-71).

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Mandibular antemortem (and postmortem) tooth loss

And then there is dental disease. There is something about tooth pain and the recollection of it that makes me particularly wince whenever I see the evidence for tooth loss or an abscess. Dental caries, calculus and periodontal disease are also evident in the Neolithic. Unfortunately, the inconsistent nature of the skeletal record for the period makes generalisation difficult but it does seem that caries – attributable to carbohydrate-based diets – are less evident than in later periods (Smith & Brickley, 2009, 127; Roberts & Cox, 2003), a finding borne out by evidence for changes in diet and subsistence practices observed over time.

Fly agaric

Fly agaric

These are just three examples of pathology that have come my way lately and the latter two are enough to make me thank goodness that I live in the age of analgesia, antibiotics and anaesthetic. I hope, for the sake of the Neolithic people (to whom I have become rather attached) that the archaeologists who believe there was some kind of pain relief back then are right.

Further Reading

Resnick, D. (ed) 2002 Diagnosis of bone and joint disorders, 4th ed in 5 vols, Philadelphia, PA: Saunders

Roberts, A. 2016 The Complete Human Body: The Definitive Visual Guide, London: Dorling Kindersley

Roberts, C. & Cox, M. 2003 Health & Disease in Britain: From Prehistory to the Present Day, Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited

Smith, M. & Brickley, M. 2009 People of the Long Barrows: Life, Death and Burial in the Earlier Neolithic, Stroud: The History Press

Walker, D. 2012 Disease in London, 1st-19th centuries: An illustrated guide to diagnosis, London: Museum of London Archaeology

 

 

 

Roving researcher

I’m at the stage of my research now where I’m doing the hands-on stuff. In practice this means that my weeks are weeks of two halves, the first being concerned with the living (in my day job) and the second being all about the dead (in my research). I’ll leave you to work out which cause me the most trouble. So I’m now spending a good deal of my allocated PhD time visiting museums and museum stores looking at human remains, many of which haven’t seen the light of day for decades.

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Half of it

I have a roving research kit that I take with me on every trip for which I have a check-list that I refer to each time to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything vital, such as my glasses, the absence of which would be disastrous and render it impossible to read anything or take any measurements.

None of this is a chore as I am fascinated by my research area – and I do love museums. As well as being a regular visitor, I’ve been lucky enough to work in them on various projects. These have included cataloguing and rationalising a large collection of African animal bones, which was thoroughly enjoyable (although if I never see another antelope skeleton it’ll be too soon), and cataloguing a local history collection, the highlights of which were a dead rat and an 18th century bedpan complete with coprolite in situ. I’ve also worked on the cataloguing of archaeological collections and currently I’m involved in a project involving prehistoric human remains (separate to my PhD research, more of which to follow).

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In the store

I have to say, in my experience, the curators, staff and volunteers in museums are always really nice people. There must be something about the heritage sector that attracts the good ones (it almost sounds like I’m including myself in that sweeping generalisation). Take today, for example. I arrived at the museum (late, my satnav having led me astray) and the curator came straight away to meet me, introduced me to the other staff and then set me up in my own space to get on with my work with tables, a chair and even a heater. He popped back now and then to check that I was okay and even supplied hot drinks, including during the staff lunch break for which I joined them. I was made to feel totally welcome.

My research includes seeking permission to study particular skeletal remains and I never take this for granted as there are things that can make this impractical or inappropriate. However, when it does work out, I gratefully take the opportunity and try my best to be reliable, professional and as a little trouble as possible. I also think it’s important for museum collections to be studied by the likes of me to help justify their existence. My study area starts quite local to me and then expands outwards across south-east England so, inevitably, my journeys – and research days themselves – will get longer as time goes on, so a good relationship with curatorial staff is very important to making this successful and ideally enjoyable process for all concerned.

 

 

Where are you going on holiday this year?

I was at the hair salon the other day. I never mind who does my hair as they’re all very good there and on this occasion a young stylist I’d not met before had been randomly allocated to me. We had the usual discussion about what I wanted done and then she began the inevitable small talk. It’s not my fault: I’m a Myers Briggs INFP and we’re not fans of small talk. But I’m also polite so I try to play long. When she got to the bit about what I was doing for the rest of the day (which is when I usually say, “Oh nothing much, just a quiet day”, or something similar to avoid having to talk about myself), for some reason I heard myself saying I was having a study day. Inevitably she asked what I was studying and somehow I found myself telling her I was doing a PhD and that it was in archaeology. Fully expecting the conversation to end there she surprised me by probing further and, before I knew it, she was bombarding me with intelligent questions about the study of human remains. This kept us both going for the rest of the haircut and I found myself really enjoying her apparently genuine interest. And we never did get on to where I was going on holiday.

“So, what is it you’re researching?” is a question I often find a little difficult to answer, although it depends quite a bit on who’s asking, of course. Well, basically I’m looking at mortuary practice during the Early Neolithic period in south-east England. ‘Mortuary practice’, incidentally, is a phrase I’m so used to now that I forget that it’s not something generally talked about in everyday life and, in fact, when I used it on my Twitter profile I found myself getting followed by funeral directors, which was a bit disconcerting until I realised why. Anyway, I came across this description during my literature review, which sums it up nicely, I think:

“…archaeologists can approach ways in which the ritual treatment of the dead body was a means of reproducing a sense of identity and community in the past…similarities noticeable over time and space may provide an insight into changing identity processes.” (Liv Nilsson Stutz, 2010)

By way of background, I first became immersed in mortuary practice during my Masters when I did my dissertation on infant burials in south-east England in the Iron Age, Romano-British and Early Pagan Saxon periods. As part of the MA I had to direct a two-week excavation and I was fortunate enough to investigate a ditch on an Iron Age/Romano-British site in West Sussex where, right at the end of the dig, elsewhere on site two infant burials were found beneath the drip gulleys of a roundhouse. This brought so many questions to my mind about why these infants were buried there and how it differed from the burial treatment of other age groups, societies and time periods, and what it said about the way those babies were viewed in their society. My fascination with all things buried probably began in earnest at that point.

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‘My’ Iron Age ditch

My fascination with the Neolithic probably started originally with family walks up The Trundle causewayed enclosure (/Iron Age hillfort) also in West Sussex during my childhood and later when I rather ambitiously wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the transition to agriculture in north-west Europe. This developed further when I was involved in cataloguing the intriguing archive for Whitehawk Camp and ultimately developed from there into my current PhD research project.

It has to be said that the archaeological record for the Early Neolithic is somewhat challenging due to its origins in the antiquarian investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries and the many and varied developments in archaeology since then, all of which leave a disparate body of evidence spanning several centuries’ worth of endeavour. More recently some major dating work has been carried out (Bayliss & Whittle, 2007; Whittle et al, 2011) providing for the first time a body of significant, sequential evidence for the timeframes of monument building and use in the Early Neolithic against which studies of other aspects of life in this period can now be set. Equally importantly, I feel, it is becoming increasingly recognised that gender identity in prehistory has been hampered by the assumptions of those making interpretations, usually biased toward the male (Edwards & Pope, 2013) and, similarly, the role of children in past societies (eg Thomas et al, 2011).

In short (or I’ll go on all day), by synthesising the existing evidence, which includes a number of recent additions to the archaeological record for the period from both monumental and non-monumental sites in the relatively neglected, research-wise, south-east of England, and by reassessing historic archives, my aim is to illuminate the demographic aspects of Early Neolithic burial practice in the region. I want to find out whether there were identifiable differences between men, women and children during the Early Neolithic in terms of their burial treatment and, if so, what these may tell us about their roles in life. Having recently upgraded, I have compiled my database, completed my literature review (although I find myself adding to it all the time), devised my methodology (with grateful thanks to my external assessor whose sage advice during the upgrade was hugely helpful in fine-tuning this) and tested it on a case study. Now I am extending my research across the south-east and looking forward to analysing the data in due course – and I’m really excited to see what comes out of it!

As a slight aside, way back in time in my first permanent job with ICI, my colleague, Bob, pulled me up on something and explained that assuming things would “make an ASS out of U and ME”. Years later, in the very first class of my very first archaeology course at Reading, I remembered this again when my lecturer, Paddy, was explaining the fundamental difficulties of interpreting the past with our modern-day eyes. And I’m remembering it again now with my prehistoric research project: QUESTION EVERYTHING.

References

Bayliss, A. W. & Whittle, A. (2007) Histories of the dead: building chronologies for five southern British long barrows. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 17(1) (supplement), 1-147

Edwards, B. & Pope, R. (2013) Gender in British Prehistory. In: Bolger, D. (ed.) A Companion to Gender Prehistory. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons,  458-479

Nilsson Stutz, L. (2010) The way we bury our dead. Reflections on mortuary ritual, community and identity at the time of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Documenta Praehistorica, XXXVII, 33-42

Thomas, A. Chambon, P. & Murail, P. (2011) Unpacking burial and rank: the role of children in the first monumental cemeteries of Western Europe (4600-4300 BC). Antiquity 85(329), 772-786

Whittle, A., Healy, F, & Bayliss, A., (2011) Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland (Vol. 1) Oxford: Oxbow