Month: November 2011

Relic Hunter: Common Misconceptions of Archaeology

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When one first volunteers on an archaeological dig there are a range of thoughts that may go through one’s head. Typically one thinks of, or at least hopes for, gold and silver, adventure and danger, the things brought to one’s mind by modern cinematography and the increasingly romaticised view. Advice for you: if you go on a dig thinking you are going to find the tomb of King Thingymajig filled with golden statues, treasure and lost books of power, prepare to be quite disappointed. But yet again don’t be mistaken in thinking you won’t find anything of value. The smallest of artefacts could turn the history of a place around. Take one dig I participated on in Australia. The one thing the director did not want to find was evidence of children because it would completely recreate the ideas concerning the site. What did we find five minutes later? Marbles! Whoops…children’s toys…so with this discovery we had to completely rethink the ideas we had about who lived there, why they were there and what they did!

Let me dispel a few more myths for you. When one says ‘I’m an archaeologist’, I have found that generally one is asked first one of two questions: Have you found any dinosaurs? And have you found any gold? I suppose they are fair questions if you have no idea about archaeology but sometimes even people who take the time to go on digs leave after one day after finding out that the answer to both of these questions is typically ‘No’. Actually yes I once was on a dig where they uncovered a gold coin but anything of financial value is pretty rare, and when they do turn up its not like we can keep them or even when they are displayed are they appreciated. In the British Museum there is a wonderful display of golden torques which were dug up by a number of British archaeologists several years ago. Amazing, beautiful, very rare, once in a life time discovery! And yet in the British Museum they are subject to silly statements like *American Accent* “My those ancient Englishmen had tiny waists!” Oh dear…When I mentioned this statement to one of the archaeologists that found them I think he almost had a heart attack.

In regards to dinosaurs, the closest I’ve ever found is a cat skeleton and a century dead cow under an old pub…It would be cool to find one yes but its not what we look for, thats left for the paleontologists.

Besides these common myths among the common folk, there are myths that even creep into the amateur mind. Still believed by those of theoretical studies of archaeology in universities around the whole. It doesn’t seem much but if you are planning to go on a dig it is a good thing to realise. This myth involves tiny tools and sitting doing small actions taking a long time. Sounds boring so its a good thing it isn’t true. The work involved on an archaeological dig is immense, it helps to be very fit! Occasionally we use tiny brushes, dentist tools and little spray cans of water but far more likely you will see us with shovels, mattocks, pick axes and even the occasional piece of heavy machinery. There is a reason why one needs a construction health and safety certificate to work on a dig in Australia. Hard hats, work boots, trowels and a hard days work followed by a cold beer, that is the life of the archaeologist. Certainly more work than you see Tony Robinson do in ‘Time Team’ (Though he is such a lovely fellow).

So if you want to go on an archaeological dig remember these things: No gold, no dinosaurs, small finds, lots of nothing, large tools, keep fit, need beer, small and seemingly insignificant finds or no finds at all can be the most significant in the whole dig. This last point almost caused a mutiny in one dig I was involved in when the director forgot to mention that we were actually trying to proof that there was nothing there…on the seventh day of nothing we were planning to hijack the van and drive to France but in finding nothing in that area we proved a very important thing: The extent of the whole site.

All archaeologists have one thing in common, apart from the wish to end the day with a pub dinner, they love the experience in itself and do not concern themselves with the trivial romaticised views set about by the movies but rather the nature of the human past and condition, the possibilities. May the search continue!

But if you ever do uncover a Stargate please do tell me!

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You might also be interested in:

Back to the Future: The Significance of Studying Ancient History

Survivor PhD: Close Encounters of the First Kind

Confessions of an Archaeologist: Live Free and Dig Hard!

Back to the Future: The Significance of Studying Ancient History

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When someone asks me what I am researching at university I admit that sometimes I am not all that keen on answering with ‘ancient history’. It’s not because I have any problem with it, I love ancient history in all respects and it will never cease to interest me, but I do know that often people do not understand why one studies it. It doesn’t earn much money for a start. And money has never interested me but to many in today’s society it is unfortunately the be all and end all. So being questioned about a ‘strange’ and ‘illogical’ career choice can be rather trying. Even though there is hardly a point arguing with some people about why ancient history is important in the grand scheme of things I think it is important to know at least personally that IT IS significant to the world. Ok so yes I’m never going to be a millionaire but I’m doing something I enjoy, not stuck in a repetitive job where I want to jump out the window to escape the monotony,  and I am contributing to the world whether you think so or not.

So how does ancient history contribute to human knowledge, progression and the future? Well the common answer is that it lets us recognise the mistakes of the past so that we won’t repeat them in the future. To a point this is true but it can also be argued against as history does not always repeat itself as we are told and nothing ever happens in a straight line. So when this argument is made of ancient history it is likely less substantial than for modern history where we are still being more directly affected by past actions. Ancient history does though allow us to understand where we have come from and why we are here and hence shows us how the shaping of the future by the ancients may be related to the shaping of our own future.

Beyond this sentiment of avoiding mistakes there are numerous substantial ways that the study of ancient history does contribute to the modern day, if you argue otherwise then I suggest you get back in your cubicle and continue with the number crunching. Firstly, the study of ancient history contributes to our cultural understanding and intellectual development. If we don’t know where we come from and the trials and tribulations which faced our forebears how can we understand ourselves? The study of history on any level can potentially help to define our own identities. I know that if I didn’t know about my culture I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If Australia didn’t know about its past what would there be for them to celebrate or avoid in its future. History builds who we are and by furthering our understanding of our past we better understand ourselves. It may seem a little abstract to say the business man of the day but one cannot deny that understanding oneself is vital to the progression of humanity otherwise how could we better ourselves as a species?!

On a scientific level, history is again vital to progression. If we understand origins then we can better understand things that face us today. For instance, the origins of diseases that are embedded within history allow scientists to track the progression of the disease. In doing so they may be able to work out cause and/or cure. New evidence from mummies in Egypt of cancer is providing new information for scientists as to the progression of the disease over a larger temporal scale. Now I certainly think that that is significant! History is intertwined with hundreds of other areas that could not so easily progress without it, such as medical knowledge, sociology, psychology, social structure, health and safety, linguistics, forensics, construction, planning, the list goes on and on. After all those who study ancient history and archaeology are trained in analysis which can be put to use in basically any area. Would it surprise you to learn that I as an archaeologist am qualified to contribute to numerous scientific areas including surveying, forensics, computing and construction?

In addition to being able to explain certain modern situations, the study of history is essential to the progression of the human race. Understanding the past, for instance, gives us comfort because we are not the first people to experience things and we can see the potential of the future. A person moving to the other side of the world is comforted and enabled by the fact that hundreds of people have done it before them. A company sees potential in the future because of what people have achieved prior.

Studying history in itself is a tradition and one with a firm base, it is vital to the progression of humanity personally and on a wider stage, but above all it fulfills a moral obligation to our ancestors. It allows cultures to continue with an understanding of where they came from and a respect for their heritage. And it provides a better and wiser comprehension of things that have been passed down to us. We don’t need to argue with people that ancient history is important to the progression of humanity because to an independent mind it should be obvious! And stuff being a millionaire! I’ll take being a historian any day because as I often say, it is never dull when done right. *Indiana Jones Theme Tune*So let the research continue…

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Recommended Reading: Blum and Blum, Health and Healing in Rural Greece

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Blum, R. and E. Blum (1965). Health and Healing in Rural Greece: A Study of Three Communities. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

This study of rural healing traditions in 1960s Greece is an excellent starting point for those historians who wish to read into the anthropological field. The aim of the book is to provide an understanding health beliefs in the rural societies of Greece by looking at two peasant communities called Dhadhi and Panorio, and a shepherd encampment in the region of Doxario called Saracatzani.

Blum and Blum provide an interesting and complete study of each community based on personal experience in the areas, interviews, statistics and histories. In doing so we are presented with comparison of ancient and modern methods and traditions concerning healing practices. Comparisons are drawn from the ancient literary evidence in relation to homeopathic forms of medicine and beliefs concerning modern technological and rational medicine. Blum and Blum highlight the mutual obligations seen within the traditions and the communities’ cooperation.

Unlike many modern scholars dealing with medical traditions in the modern world, Blum and Blum move beyond the herbal and scientific aspects and into discussions of magic and ritual, superstition and midwifery. The study is filled with illuminating figures concerning health practices including issues with water supply, cleanliness and focus on ancient herbal methods over modern medicine. The examples of cures in these communities are particularly interesting and illustrate the uniqueness of the environment and their beliefs. My favourite being the use of mouse oil to cure basically anything. (One takes a mouse, drowns it oil in a jar, leaves the mouse in the jar of oil in the sun for one year, take and apply to affected areas. My only issue is that if you haven’t got any handy you will be waiting a very long time for your cure to mature. And I’m also against the drowning of the innocent mouse!!! Poor thing.)

Blum and Blum focus on a range of folk healers and practices specific to both the male and female sexes. The information that they find draws certain conclusions that ancient traditions have been maintained and transferred into the modern rural healing traditions.

For someone who has not read widely on anthropology it was an enlightening introduction to modern scholarship and the links between traditions. Additionally it allows one to clearly see the types of studies undertaken by anthropologists in different environments and how those techniques relate to other disciplines; including archaeology, history, psychology and sociology.

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Lost in Translation: It’s all Greek to Us

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You have no idea how many times while in Greece we used that joke ‘oh it’s all Greek to us!’ But fortunately in that environment the joke never gets too old hehe. Over my years at university there is one thing which is a constant issue with new students, the thought of learning ancient languages. DUM DUM DUUUUM!!!! Yes its very scary, new stuff, new ways of learning, yes i understand. But it is the key reason that so many people drop out of the ancient history courses, which is rather a shame because after a while, learning languages can be rather useful and fun.

By my honours year there was only, what, three people left from the original course four years earlier. And thats sad 😦 And the reason was because of the language component. So let me explain to you why it is necessary to keep going, to strive to pass the basics and continue with those pluperfects, infinitives, genitive sandwiches and adjectival clauses. Because when you get down to it, ancient languages are one of the key parts of starting a successfully ‘historic’ career in the area.

So my dear padawans to successfully succeed where others easily give up here is some important things to keep in mind: First of all there is a reason why it is a compulsory component, ancient languages are essential to the study of historical texts, primary sources, ancient attitudes and societies. If you want to be a serious archaeologist or historian, you can’t not do them! That’s the serious stuff. Plus if you have languages, its so much easier to get opportunities working in the area later or just being successful in applying for digs, post-grad and exchanges. I learnt Classical Greek from my second year at Uni and by the end of that year I had been to Greece, dug awesome sites, and was able to converse on a basic level with the natives…well i could order a drink at least, very important stuff. But just the fact that I made an effort to learn their language on some level, whether ancient or modern, made people more friendly and because of this I had a far better experience than otherwise and met some frankly awesome, slightly mad, people. ‘Oh you speak Greek?’ ‘A little’ ‘Good on you! I’m from Cyprus, here’s my life story, I’ll pay for that.’ Its the same in all countries. You make an effort to know the people and culture and it all adds up!

That’s two fabulous points for continuing ancient languages: Academic advantage and progression and cultural familiarity and opportunity.

Still not convinced that learning languages is a good plan? Still think its too hard to be worth the effort? Well I have more! Plus if i don’t convince a few people, one day no one might want to learn and I’m out of job, and we wouldn’t want that now would we! Picking up Greek or Latin or even Hieroglyphs is not actually as hard as it seems, remember that people who give you negative views usually exaggerate more than people with positive views so listen to the positive. You may think that because you found it hard to learn say French at high school that you will find Greek hard at Uni, but that is often that not, not the case. The way vocab and grammar is taught at uni is completely different to school. In fact it doesn’t even compare. Actually I don’t think I even learnt grammar till university and I’d done numerous modern languages at school…

Also learning languages at uni can be fun, after all the academics teaching them are doing so because they love them! They are far more enthusiastic usually. Ok like every subject you will get one lecturer that reads from the book and bores you half to death, but that happens with every subject, and you are only with them for an hour or two a week. The risk is worth the reward. And when you do have a handle on a language you do get a fantastic sense of achievement! You can read a dead language that no one else can read, you can explore texts that you were otherwise blind to. And you know what? That’s pretty cool!

The lost in translation idea is vital to ancient history, archaeology, philology, well almost any subject. Everything changes in translation at least a bit, why do you think there are so many versions of the Bible! By being able to read a text in the original language even a little bit is a HUGE advantage to your work, study or research. If you are doing honours and not have at least some knowledge of the associated language, frankly you are screwed…umm i mean…’thou art highly disadvantaged.’ With the changing of the text comes change in interpretation, if you can’t compare the original to the translations at least you are going to find it very difficult to comprehend the secondary texts.

So yes, learning an ancient language can be a boring and stressful thought. But that is all it is, a thought. If you put your head down and do the work like any other subject you can get it, and there are always people to help you! Its a cliche tosay that there are no such things as stupid questions but its true (as long as you have been listening and making an effort. Asking when lunch is is not usually a valuable question). But when you do get through the basics it can be fun, rewarding and really really useful. I’m bias but I love my languages so shoot me.

Learning Greek was the most useful part of my undergrad. So stick it out! Keep the number of ancient history students up! Its so much cooler to say ‘I have a degree in ancient history’ than ‘I have an arts degree’ (though that’s cool too)!!!

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If you would like to learn an ancient language, brush up on one or need a bit of extra tutoring then go to 

Survivor PhD: Close Encounters of the First Kind

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In the beginning there was the word and the word was ahhhhh! Ok so I started a PhD and the first thing i found out was that this was…actually i found out nothing at all. The first year of a PhD is not exactly what you would term structured. The reality is that you are likely to be told to just ‘ready steady GO!’ The same is generally said for any postgrad and the way to react is very simple and should, and will, be followed to the letter: 1.) Celebrate (Woo! I got in!), 2.) PANIC!!!

So let me tell you how it is, this odd and unique experience, the first year of a very long period where you feel like you are achieving nothing and drink way too much tea.

In the words of a very wise colleague of mine ‘If you don’t regularly have a breakdown, you are doing it wrong!’ But ultimately, in the run of things, if you are not enjoying it you are also doing it wrong. That is the thing with a PhD you see, its your chance to finally do what you want to do, to research what you want to research, to go where NO STUDENT HAS GONE BEFORE! *cough* sorry, side tracked…Basically one does a PhD not to add to the research of the age but because they have a love of a subject and they want to find out more. If you are doing it for the sake of doing it then you are going to have four years of misery, too many energy drinks and no money for no reason, which is frankly a waste.

Lets take me, after all I am the one writing this, I think, yes it’s definitely me…as you can see doing a PhD can make you quite erratic, eccentric and noticeably tired even in the middle of a relaxing weekend. But I research what I research because I find it interesting and I not only see the benefits of my research for future students of history but for myself. In my first year as a PhD student I developed awesome researching skills, read a ridiculous amount of interesting hypotheses (most of which I decided were arguable) and I finally learnt to touch type after twenty-one years in a technology age (it was seriously about time). I stressed over time and work loads and whether my topic was original but I loved what I was doing and that made it worth my while.

But we come back to the same point we started with; when one starts one does not have a clue where to go, what to do and generally why one is doing it. The university only gives you so much direction so let me share some of my wisdom for those of you starting out, continuing or who are just interested. In the words of Corporal Jones DON’T PANIC! Well panic a little bit, that’s healthy, but don’t stress out. No one knows what they are doing at the start, you are not there by a fluke (imposter-syndrome is very common – I have always been a sufferer myself), people are interested in what you have to say and don’t take any criticism to heart.

The best thing to do is read, read like you have never read before! It is very rare for someone to start out knowing exactly what they want to do and even when they do it doesn’t often work out the same as what it started. Don’t panic if you only have a general topic, it took a super intelligent Doctor I know two and a half years of his PhD to work out what on earth he was going to write about. Obviously don’t fluff around but one can only benefit from knowing their topic area from all angles first and then deciding where to take it.

You WILL be prone to procrastination. I certainly found new and exciting ways to waste my time. When you work as hard as is required with a PhD this is actually healthy in my opinion. About the only time my brain turned off the Greek translations, medical jargon and epigraphic analysis was during an episode of QI or a random trip to the supermarket to buy new eyeliner and chocolate which I didn’t need. FYI you will forget fruit and vegetables within the first few months and convert to instant meals, try to avoid this if possible…I’m not sure it’s possible…

Everyone’s first year goes a little differently, there is no structured instructions because they would never apply to everyone involved. The thing to do is work out what works for you, discuss it with your academics, your peers, your pets, and then accept that it isn’t going to go as planned. Love what you are doing, if you don’t you will go mad. You may go mad anyway but generally in a more lovable way.  So keep this in mind after your 20th coca cola of the week. You are not alone, we are watching! Twilight Zone Theme