The mouse is my trowel now

The 2014 Day of Archaeology is meant be a window into the many lives of an archaeologist. It is an opportunity to share what we get up to in a typical day with other archaeologists and the wider world. It’s a fantastic idea and has been greeted with lots of enthusiasm. Although the day itself was on Friday 11th July, it happened to kick off the two week Festival of British Archaeology (on twitter as #FoBA) which ran from the 12th until the 27th July so it feels as though there has just been a month long celebration of all things archaeology in the UK. Sadly, July is over now and August just doesn’t seem to care about archaeology in the same way. It is with fond nostalgia that I look back to those heady days (was it only a week ago?) when there were so many amazing projects, activities, research and open days that it was hard to keep up with all the news about wonderful finds and experiences on offer.

There are loads of fantastic Day of Archaeology entries for this year up on their website already (you can see them here http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/category/day-of-archaeology-2014/ or on twitter using #Dayofarch). People have been digging medieval cemeteries in Italy or conducting underwater survey work off-shore from Guernsey. People spent the day working at Stonehenge or playing site code lottery amongst the archives. Many of them were outdoors in the July sunshine, actually digging. They were in a trench or in a museum (quite literally) touching the past.

Where was I and what was I doing? I was at my desk, attempting to bend ArcGIS, Filemaker and Excel to my will – or at least to get these computer programs to play together nicely (please?). And so how did I spend my Day of Archaeology 2014? I spent it consumed by blindingly hot raging jealousy of all those lovely people out in the lovely sunshine digging their lovely archaeology.

I should point out that I did spend many previous years working full time in the field, so I am no stranger to the dark reality of field archaeology in Britain – being mired in the depths of a claggy muddy hole while the English winter actively seeks to chuck as much precipitation as possible down the back of your neck. Back then, filling in some context sheets in the nice warm dry tea hut or writing up a site report in the office was something to look forward to. This exceptionally lovely July has quite definitely been totally out of the ordinary (and in fact digging in the extreme heat can actually be both risky and highly uncomfortable – no one wants heatstroke) but the fact remains that it was a lovely July to be outdoors investigating the past and I really wished I was somewhere out there myself. Sadly, I am almost entirely an indoor archaeologist these days; the mouse is my trowel now.

In reality, I actually do love what I do and the research I am currently undertaking. I don’t mind being indoors at my desk all day because the project I’m part of is amazing and interesting and fun. Both the Day of Archaeology and the wide range of work being conducted as part of the Festival of British Archaeology have highlighted for me the many different and marvellous ways in which people can explore our collective past and still call themselves archaeologists. So much of what counts towards being an archaeologist happens entirely in the lab or the library, at a desk or an archive, and even more involves understanding and manipulating data obtained from someone else’s time in the field rather than your own. Archaeology is at heart a collaborative effort between many people in many different roles. Some of the most exciting and innovative archaeological research happening right now is entirely computer-based.

But it can be difficult to really feel like an archaeologist when you are not physically engaging with the past, either through exploring and excavating features in the field or handling artefacts in the museum or lab. Modelling trend surfaces or creating spatial histograms just doesn’t have the same immediacy no matter how interesting it can be. It is somehow the actual material connection to the… well, the material of the past that helps create (for me) its significance.

I am not alone in this feeling. The objects, artefacts and various odds’n’sods remnants of the past that archaeologists study are often referred to as ‘material culture’. There is an enormous amount of work out there that discusses how we experience and understand material culture in the present through our senses and haptic perception (1). In addition, archaeologists have undertaken a lot of work exploring the relationship between people and material culture both in the past (how people in the past created, used and disposed of objects) and also in the present (how archaeologists recover, relate to and try to understand objects from the past). I find the concepts of materiality and material agency as the most useful tools in understanding the link between physical remains and our experiences of interacting with these remains; a really great introduction to these ideas can be found in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies and the chapter titled The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Material Agency in particular is a great introduction to the topic and reviews the recent history of ideas that have contributed to current thinking about materiality and material agency (2). I believe as archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking (over-thinking?) our physical connection to the world around us as a natural result of spending so much time thinking about the physical remains we find in the ground and how they connect us to people in the past. Despite all of that, there are many ways to explore past human societies and many of these do not require any direct physical connection to material from the past.

So although I am sorry to see you go July, I have decided that you can take my jealousy with you. I’m happy being the archaeologist I am. Besides, August seems pretty rainy so far. Perhaps it’s not such a bad time to be indoors after all…

**Edited to add: I have a busy few weeks ahead, but I will try and source some good introductory material (!) on materiality and material agency in archaeology that is open access and freely accessible to all. Any suggestions more than welcome.

1. A good introduction to the relationships between sense and archaeology might be this article by Chris Gosden, found in a special issue of World Archaeology on Archaeology and Aesthetics:
Chris Gosden (2001) Making sense: Archaeology and aesthetics, World Archaeology, 33:2, 163-167.

2. Andrew M Jones and Nicole Boivin (2010) The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Material Agency. In The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Edited by Mary C. Baeudry and Dan Hicks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reviewing My Reviewing

Today I have (finally) been catching up with writing some book reviews and updating my goodreads. The last proper reviews I wrote were months ago; so much reading time has passed that I now have so many books to add and I have so many other things I need to be doing, I was starting to wonder if I could ever catch up or if it was even worth trying.

How had I managed to get so behind on updating my reading? It’s a quick click of the mouse to just add titles to the read shelf on my goodreads page. I move books into a finished folder on my kindle or I physically put finished books on the shelves once I am done with them. If it was just a matter of wanting a record somewhere of what I have been reading, I already have one so that wasn’t the problem. After some thought, I realised that what was holding me up was writing the reviews. I was starting to feel like I couldn’t add a book to my goodreads shelves without also adding a review. Adding the book but not adding the review with the idea that I would go back and write one later was ridiculous; despite my best intentions, I know myself well enough to know that it was pretty unlikely that I would manage to get around to writing that review. So I stopped adding books altogether until I had time to write them up as well. Obviously I felt the reviews were important enough that I was accumulating a backlog. But why does it matter to me to write these reviews? What is the purpose, for me, in creating commentary on my reading? After consideration, I decided that it really had something to do with memory and my increasing dependence on my e-reader.

I love my kindle and I also love physical books. In the abstract, these forms are in no way mutually exclusive for me but the reality is that these days my digital library is growing at a much faster pace than my physical one. There are a number of reasons for that. The most obvious is that getting the e-book is much cheaper than buying a physical copy most of the time. I’d love to buy physical copies of all the books on my kindle I have enjoyed just to have them on my bookshelves but I don’t have the money (or the space). Shopping online for digital books is also more convenient. Actually, not just more convenient but easier to do on an impulse; I find an effective way to police my spending on books is by simply not walking into bricks and mortar bookstores (much as I enjoy spending hours in bookstores), but I find it much harder to stop myself buying a book online. Especially as you can, for example, pick up the next book in a series at any hour of the day or night. The instant gratification is hard to resist.

Where do I shelve my Kindle?

Where do I shelve my Kindle?

 

So my library is becoming increasingly virtual but also, for me, increasingly forgettable. Digital copies don’t have the same metaphorical heft as a physical book does in my memory. Generic titles, lesser known (to me) authors; they all blend together and I find it harder to remember what I’ve already read and what each book was about. The experience of reading a physical book plants signifiers in my memory that a kindle just can’t replicate; the weight, the cover, even just the colour scheme can trigger my recall. A book about India with a blue and red cover? That’s Shantaram. And how could I forget the incredible wrist bending weight of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem?

 

When I read everything on my kindle, the signifiers are all the same. The books weigh the same, have the same font, and are the same size. It’s just like everything else I read on my kindle. My poor unreliable memory gets confused or at least has to work a lot harder – What’s this Olivia in my finished folder? I don’t recognize this author. Did I really read this? What is this book about? I’ve tried to overcome this by tagging books, creating folders and filing things as best I can. But books can be very difficult to categorize and it can be confusing to track down things when you want to recommend something imperfectly recalled to someone else. I find writing reviews helps to make my experience of reading the book more concrete.

There are other reasons for writing reviews. I miss my library being publicly visible and friends miss this too. They are disappointed when they come to visit and there are not as many new titles to browse through and discuss (and borrow). I want my virtual books to have a similar virtual bookshelf and part of that means I need to rate them or review them.

I find ratings to be troublesome overall. Different books will be good or bad for totally different reasons and while the outliers (five stars or no stars) are easier to place, the middle becomes a generic land of 3 and 4 stars. Reviews make it possible for me to explore the good and bad aspects of a book in a way that a simple rating does not allow. I want to be able to say why or why not. What worked for me and what didn’t. What other books I felt like it echoed or emulated. Why I picked this book up in the first place. Why I might have put it down. And why I think somebody else should give it a chance.

Besides, how else am I going to remember what I have already read?