News!

Summer is preparation season in the museum/London world, apparently. It is now all too common for me to spend a whole week away from home every evening, leaving work and heading to an exhibition planning meeting. Hence the lack of blog posts recently.

All this rushing around has meant my diet and lifestyle has become less than healthy. I’ve taken to making myself smoothies to bring into work to rectify this somewhat; I’ve developed a mistrust of shop-bought ones since I read they contain huge amounts of sugar (I have too many fillings to risk that!). Unfortunately we don’t have a blender, forcing me to use a potato masher on my chosen fruit and avocado…and meaning green and purple lumps float around on the top. But however it looks, it tastes good, especially in this heat wave!

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A superfood apparently – and hopefully my diet redemption

But I can reveal some good news: after months of deliberating and nail biting, the waters have cleared and I am now all accepted to start my PhD at Oxford in October! I quite honestly cannot wait. I also only have 2.5 weeks left at work. Something else I am counting down the minutes for…. That being said, we are having a Great British Bake Off competition this Friday, and I am much enjoying the move away from sporty events. Make and eat cake – much more my style!

But back to the PhD plans. Finally on track to get started with my pilgrim flask project. For those of you who don’t know, the research project is entitled “Pilgrim Flasks: chronological and cultural changes throughout Egypt and Sudan from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period”, and has 3 main aims: to create a typology of pilgrim flask, with a particular interest in the deviations between Egypt and Sudan after Egyptian withdrawal at the end of the end of the New Kingdom; to assess the relationship between the changes in shape and shifts in society; and to try and understand the purpose of the flask and it’s usage across different cultures. The creation of the typology will be particularly challenging, but it will be great to work with material from current excavations – so often we have to rely upon old excavation reports with vague contexts!

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City of Dreaming Spires

This does mean that we’ll be moving out of our amazing flat (sob). I think I’ve been spoilt this year, living in such a light, spacious flat with a garden. Moving day is the 5th September – not that I as yet have anywhere to move to….The bureaucracy of the whole thing is keeping me tethered temporarily to earth however. I’d forgotten quite how much PAPERWORK the whole thing requires. Financial declaration forms, contracts, accommodation details… I am particularly getting stuck on the latter. The fiancé may (or may not) be getting a job up north, and as such I am in housing limbo. Managed to reserve myself some uni accommodation luckily, as a back up plan, although I’m sure they’ll be chasing me to sign a contract soon….

I was a bit worried about finding accommodation for myself; during the first two years of your undergrad, your college usually arranges your housing, and then I lived with friends for the following two years. However it actually ended up being surprisingly easy even at this late stage. I emailed both my college accommodation office and the university graduate accommodation office and both found me a room within a few days. The one I chose is in a purpose built block near he Oxford train station and (the clincher for me) is right next to an allotment. Which I of course promptly signed up for! Planning on growing courgettes and sweet peas. Courgettes are just so easy to grow, and I’ve always fancied trying my hand at the sweet peas. Now I just have to see what happens to force my hand next week.

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I feel like these last few weeks in London are passing in such a blur…

And the sun makes an appearance

London in the summer is glorious – although avoiding public transport becomes an ever more urgent game; the last bus I was on was pumping out heating full blast on a day of 27 degrees….
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At work, things are hotting up – and not only because of the lack of ventilation. I had my contract extended and am being promoted (might finally end up above the living wage!). It is reassuring to know that, if I had changed my mind about Egyptology, I have the potential to survive in the real world; something that I was beginning to doubt in my stint of unemployment. I now spend my days filling in spreadsheets, printing letters, and training other people to do my old job. How exciting my life has become!
I have pinned job success down to 3 factors:
1) Getting a foot in the door. Anyway, anyhow.
2) Basically being a willing slave. And SMILING while you do it.
3) Getting bored quickly and doing everyone else’s job for them (always given a more professional slant in job descriptions and called something along the lines of ‘initiative’ ‘leadership skills’ etc.)
The relief of secure employment for the time being however is huge; and I can still stop my brain disintegrating by filling my spare time with researchy things. 
It is so much easier to be motivated once the days lengthen and you wake up to birdsong in a blue sky. This does however has the somewhat unfortunate side effect of meaning you take too much on! Deadlines are popping up left right and centre at the moment. The Inspired by the Crystal Palace Subway project has finished interviewing people who remember the subway in use, and the deadline next week for collating all these will be swiftly followed by heavy research and figuring out how to display everything we have gathered to the largest number of people. The exhibition, due to coincide with Openhouse weekend in September, is going to be unlike anything I’ve worked on before. It seems strange to work with audio and visual recordings; that’s certainly not something you get a chance to do often when working with ancient finds! 
The magnificent Crystal Palace Subway

The magnificent Crystal Palace Subway

It must be exhibition season as well as conference season, because I’ve also been invited to help design a tour and workshop for the European Day of Jewish Culture on 15th September, which will be converted to an exhibition. The theme this year is women in Judaism, and we plan for the exhibition to coincide with International Women’s Day on the 5th March. The three of us who volunteer at the Wiener basically get free rein to design and implement the tour/workshop, so it’s fascinating delving into the Wiener’s huge collection and pooling our experience to try and bring them to the attention of the general public. One focus of mine is to tell stories that are perhaps less well known; and to bring personal experiences across as belonging to people, rather than statistics in a book, which many cannot relate to. The Wiener’s work is still so relevant today, particularly in light of what is happening across Europe at the moment. 
But I am managing to keep in Egyptology through all this; and at the Petrie’s Festival of Pots on Saturday, I got to combine it with fun in the sun for once! 
A day celebrating all that is awesome and useful about pottery. Could I ask for more?! I was invited to take part by Sarah Doherty, an Egyptologist specialising in ceramic technology, who also makes and experiments with her own pottery, but there was a massive dedicated party of volunteers. We spent the morning demonstrating how to do technical drawings of ceramics; and it was quite strange having to actually think about what I was doing, and explain it logically for a change. Brought back a bit of nostalgia for the first time I learnt to draw too. Good lord I was terrible at it. One man confided that his entire family were artistic and yet he’d never been able to draw a thing; but after persuading him to have a go I think he was very pleasantly surprised at the wonders measuring everything can achieve!  
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The afternoon was filled with painting pots, colouring in paper flowers, and pretending I could remember how to read hieroglyphs properly. There were potters demonstrating firing techniques, and they even made proper ancient Egyptian bread – which strangely enough tasted like vinegar, even more surprisingly in a tasty way! Everyone who stopped by painted their interpretations of  on this huge pot we had out on the table, in red and yellow ochre. The high point of the festival was typically Egyptian… With a ritual pot smashing!
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Sarah Hurling the pot with a ritual exclamation of “Life, Prosperity, and Health!”

I have a particular interest in foundation deposits and the ritual smashing of vessels; and it was great fun to recreate one. The whole crowd seemed to catch onto the excitement of the gathered Egyptologists; and we soon had everyone from children to passing UCL students picking up pieces of the smashed jar to turn into ostraca. 
One thing I have come to learn, is that there is never a dull day in London if you know where to look. I only wish I felt half as awake during my actual job as I do when working on my other projects…fingers crossed, they’ll soon be one and the same…

CRE XV Review

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Pretty much the whole of my last week was spent preparing for; or actually at, the 15th Current Research in Egyptology conference, where recent graduates and early-career Egyptologists gather to present their work and discuss their research.

 

For me, it was exciting (and nerve-wracking!) as this was the first time I would present my research to other scholars – and see whether it held up under scrutiny. I presented a paper on infant jar burials, something I worked on as part of my MSt last year:

 

Precious deposits: new interpretations of infant jar burials in Egypt and Sudan

Kom Firin, please do not reproduce without permission

Kom Firin, please do not reproduce without permission

Infant jar burials are a persistent feature along the Nile Valley from the Neolithic to early Christian period, and hold a particular fascination. However their interpretation has been restricted and their relative rarity on sites often overlooked. Rather than a cheap, standard method of disposal, I suggest these burials allow us an insight into the perception of children in Ancient Egyptian society and can aid towards understanding of social identity and community.

 

This paper will use evidence from El-Kadada, ‘Ain Asil, Elephantine and Abydos among others to discuss the meaning of particular ceramic forms used, rather than assuming all vessels to be a sign of low value. Assessing patterns of deposition, this will be used to critique the ‘womb metaphor’ often cited in understanding the relationship between the infant and the vessel, and suggest instead that infants were associated with domestic space. This in turn has repercussions for the idea that children were not full community members.

 

Bringing ceramics into social analysis is proving to bring new insights into the understanding of Egyptian social culture, and this paper hopes to demonstrate the validity of such an approach.

 

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Sadig, 2005, Sudan & Nubia vol. 9. Please do not reproduce without permission

 

However I also decided to take the opportunity to put feelers out about a part of my thesis research, and did a poster on red painted bowl rims in Third Intermediate Period Nubia:

 

Deliberate drips: developments in ceramic decoration at the end of the New Kingdom in Nubia.

 

Great strides have been made in clarifying ceramic chronologies for the end of the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt. However, in Nubia, it still remains extremely difficult date graves closely. This is problematic for our understanding of social and political shifts in Nubian societies leading up to the Napatan era. It is increasingly apparent that there are noticeable differences in contemporary ceramics in Egypt and Nubia. Recent fieldwork in Sudan has thrown up a substantial amount of ceramic material which can aid towards our understanding of where exactly Nubian ceramic development differs from that in Egypt.

 

This paper will focus on one observed trait; the increased tendency for red-painted bowl rims to bear uneven drips. Using examples from Amara West, Missiminia and Hillat el-Arab, this is suggested to be a deliberate feature choice by potters rather than carelessness, starting at the end of the New Kingdom and increasing in popularity in the early Post New Kingdom.

 

If this feature is found to appear at other contemporary sites within Sudan, it may act as a chronological marker, whilst establishing that these sites had aspects of a regional style even under New Kingdom control.

 

With those out in the open, I now feel like a proper Egyptologist!

 

The conference was also a chance to hear about some of the fascinating and wide-ranging research going on within Egyptology at the moment – and it was wonderful to dip back into that world once again, which I am getting increasingly anxious to re-enter!

 

It was opened by Dr Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum, with her Keynote lecture discussing the role of museums in early excavations; as well as the AHRC project she is running, a collaboration between the Petrie, the EES and the Griffith Institute. This three year project aims to track down artefacts dispersed from EES excavations between 1883 and 1915, and ultimately to make this information freely accessible online. So hopefully there will be less desperate rounds of emails to museums/collectors (we’ve all been there…).

 

This year, the conference was its biggest yet, with two or three parallel sessions running each day; so I only saw half of what was going on really, often racing between lecture rooms to be sure of hearing those that piqued my interest. I was particularly interested in ‘Tells, toponyms and the Third Intermediate Period: constructing a new topographical settlement map for the period’ by James Bennett, a PhD student from Durham University, as I envisage developing my pilgrim flask typology during my PhD is going to be particularly challenging for vessels from this complex period. Carl Walsh gets the prize for a presentation I haven’t been able to stop thinking about with his ‘Establishing the proper etiquette: diplomacy and transmission of courtly lifestyles between Egypt and Kerma in the Middle Bronze Age’. He discussed the idea of sitting as a form of courtly display in Kerma, culminating in the appearance of chairs and funerary beds in Kerman graves. This referenced the fact that sitting down as we do today is actually an unnatural posture, and is in fact damaging to the body. I now think about this almost every day in my office job, when my back inevitably starts to ache! I was interested to see another discussion of infants on the programme; ‘The liminal status of the unborn and newborn child in Graeco-Roman Egypt’ by Ada Nifosi. My study focused on establishing the value of children through the vessels themselves, using ceramics to try and access reasoning behind pot burial; so it was interesting to see a study from a later period, where Egypt was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman cultural values, and to bounce ideas off each other.

 

“Deviant burials from the predynastic to the Middle Kingdom’ by Antje Kohse was fascinating, because I had read about deviant burials from Europe – mostly relating to bog bodies, which are often staked to the ground, possibly to stop them rising. I was intrigued to discover that stakes have also been found in Egyptian burials; and while I was aware of the various ritualisations of the body after death in the predynastic, had no idea it continued into the Middle Kingdom.

 

There were so many I could wax lyrical about: from the University of Waseda presenting the results of their conservation of Amenhotep III’s tomb, exciting because most of their findings are typically published in Japanese; discussions of current excavations at Gebelein and Saqqaara; preliminary findings from early PhD days and proud presentations of 3 years of hard work at the end of PhDs. The other keynote speakers were particularly interesting. Dr. Richard Bussman’s discussions of early temples and how habit and tradition in themselves establish meaning to religious beliefs was an intriguing and unusual approach to temple analysis, bringing some useful anthropological ideas into play.

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Chris Norton, director of the EES, closed the conference with a discussion of the society’s plans for the future, which is a good look at the near future of the discipline in general. With six major projects – The Theban harbours and waterscapes survey; the Delta Survey; work at Quesna; the Imbaba prehistoric survey and Tell Basta (for some reason I have completely forgotten the sixth one!) – the society has a continuing strong presence in the field. However it also publicly announced for the first time, that they are offering 3 annual scholarships to Egyptian archaeologists to come to London for a month, using the library facilities and engaging in dialogues with British archaeologists, which can only benefit good international disciplinary relationships. With the EES newsletter now also to be published in Arabic, this is looking good!

 

Ending with looking to the future was an ideal way to close the conference; however, as with most archaeology conferences, it was certainly not all work and no play; with drinks receptions every night, a conference dinner, and a conference party at Kings (which incidentally has the most amazing bars, one overlooking the river and one akin to a swanky hotel bar!). Perfect way to wind down after concentrating all day, as well as to get people chatting!

 

With the CRE, conference season seems to be upon us, with the annual Sudan Archaeological Research Society on the 19th May, at the British Museum, next on my list. But for now, I need to get my act together and write up my presentation while the conducive dialogues it sparked are still fresh in my head!

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Croydon eulogising

It’s been a while since I last posted on here; and that’s because I have somehow finally managed to enter the world of work. Round of applause please.

I’m working as a call handler for an insurance company in Croydon, and have been promoted from a temp worker to full, contracted employee.

Office work seems, to me, to consist mostly of being shouted at by angry clients, smelling of fish all day after spilling my packed lunch on myself, and trying not to stare at the old desktop screen too much to avoid a headache. But hey, today is payday!

Taking a random, let’s be honest boring job while you wait for the next opportunity to come along is something all archaeologists will be familiar with. The reality of archaeology can often be significantly less glam and adventurous than most people think, thanks mostly to this waiting game so many of us are forced to play.

When I first moved to London, I thought I would quite easily be able to get a good job for a year; but I’ve learnt that having a BA and Masters in Egyptology freaks potential employers out rather than making them want to hire you. Temporarily, it ended up damaging my job prospects rather than helping them- NOT something that is exactly advertised!

I’ve also learnt that, while I can happily research in the library all day, downing coffee to keep my brain buzzing, I get bored after about an hour in the office, can’t even drink coffee because I get so dehydrated (the horror for an addict like me!) and collapse in front of the TV as soon as I get home.

However, as everywhere in the UK, history has left its mark even on industrial Croydon, and I can’t help but become intrigued by it. Croydon is certainly not the most romantic of places; everyone who learns I work there pulls a bit of a face at its reputation, while my Dad refers to it as Stockport on Steroids.

Romantic meets Industrial

Romantic meets Industrial

 

Glimpse of the water tower

Glimpse of the water tower

My unpeeling of Croydon’s historical layers began with Park Hill recreation park, which I discovered when, in my lunchtime attempts to escape the stale office air, I spotted through the high rise buildings what looked like a castle – the lure of which I was obviously powerless against. This ‘castle’ (actually a Victorian water tower but it was still historical, so half a point awarded) was nestled in the middle of a large park, choc-a-bloc with spring flowers and blossom trees. Judging by the mature trees, I thought the park was about 100 years old.

HOWEVER, a little digging later and it turns out this male park is a tally the last remains of a deer park, which stretched across Central Croydon to a palace owned and inhabited by the Archbishops of Canterbury for over 500 years. Yes, Croydon has a palace. A palace in which the likes of Henry III and Elizabeth I stayed in.

The Palace still stands, and is now a girls’ school, so I went to have a nosy at that too. There’s only so much you can see behind the high walls but there is a society that open the palace for guided tours a few times a year, and I am dying to go on one.

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Now, whenever I’m dodging the 4 lanes of traffic and skipping across the tramlines as I have to to get home, I stop and try to imagine how quiet Croydon must have been 500 years ago, with deer grazing and Elizabeth I (my favourite monarch of course) galloping across toward the palace. I tend to avoid the underpass now; the last time I used it I ended up in the middle of a turf war with a bag of rubbish soaring quite spectacularly over my head- so now I risk the traffic and imagine!

Croydon also, amazingly, has a Minster (like York!). This one is made of chipped flint and has a fascinating collection of tombstones, the reliefs carved representing the deceased’s career in life. The Minster is locked except for services, but the outside was still beautiful, if slightly neglected.

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What Croydon has a lot of is late Victorian architecture, with a lot of Victorian shop buildings still in use today. Dating from probably only a little earlier is a distance marker, which has been placed in the park although probably was originally from elsewhere. The only side not eroded is the one marking Whitechapel. I love this.

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It also marks the entrance to a little memorial garden, split into herb patches, in honour of Cicely Mary Barker. I had never heard of her; but I had seen examples of her artwork for most of my childhood- she was the designer behind flower fairies! She had no formal art training but her artwork is now instantly recognisable by people all over the world, and she lived her entire life in Croydon. That’s certainly someone to be proud of!

Thus ends my Croydon eulogy. But it just goes to show that history and stories are all around you, even in the most unlikely of places!

Now on to spend my weekend prepping for the CRE conference….

 

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Few interesting gravestones from the Minster

Forward strides!

It’s fascinating to see how often archaeology has been appearing in the news in the past few weeks; with important new discoveries not only cropping up on the archaeology sites I follow on Facebook but also the National and International news.

In the midst of so much negative press coming out of Egypt, two recent discoveries at Giza have put a welcome positive spotlight on the country.They have transformed the way we envisage 4th Dynasty Egypt, and developed some vital context; all too often the pyramids are seen as striking World Wonders rather than apexes of a working community. Excavations by the Ancient Egyptian Research Associates, led by Dr. Mark Lehner, have uncovered the remains of a bustling harbour and a 21-room elite house. The harbour, including a large basin dug over 1kms from the nearest Nile channel, would have been used to move stone for building the pyramids as well as rations for workers and other luxury items. Lehner’s team have come across evidence for far-ranging trade links, with granite from Aswan, Levantine wood including cedar and juniper (now reduced to charcoal) and a style of pottery known as combed-ware jars, also hailing from the Levant. While this basin is located near a satellite town, a larger city served as home to many of those involved in the mammoth project, with large rectangular buildings once thought to house ordinary workers. However recent research has thrown up evidence that these may actually have housed soldiers or sailors, thanks to the finds of cedar charcoal and a hippo hip; fancy items not usually available to ordinary folks!

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Possible reconstruction of the barracks housing sailors or soldiers (Courtesy of AERA).

The house has thrown up the most interesting finds. Aside from the obvious assumption that such a large house must have belonged to someone in the upper echelons of society, archaeologist Richard Redding observed that all cattle bones (and there were over 100,000) belonged to animals under 18 months. They was also no evidence of forelimbs, the traditional offering to the gods. Evidently these people lived high on a diet of gods’ leftover veal! Additionally, 4 leopard teeth were found, probably from the leopard skins priests wore in this period.

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View of the magnificent 21-room villa overlooking the pyramids (courtesy of AERA)

The pottery obviously has intrigued me the most, as a type I came across frequently during my undergraduate years. Combed-ware storage jars become hugely popular in the 4th dynasty and are thought to have contained a liquid (wine for all those priests partying on veal!). At this point in the Old Kingdom, these traded vessels are found only around Giza and at a few other select royal sites, indicating that their import was very closely regulated and is a classic example of elite groups controlling resources as a mark of power. Take a look at ‘Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Old Kingdom. An archaeological perspective’, published in 2009 by Sowada, for more information on the changing patterns of trade in the Old Kingdom – I have to say, it is one of my favourite books. No dry academic treatise here!

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Just had to put one of these in… beautifully preserved combed-ware jar (Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

These findings have fascinating repercussions for our understanding of Ancient Egypt in general. Almost like redeveloping a blurry photograph, life in the Pyramid age is becoming more and more vivid. Rather than a sandy, empty plain, something akin to the hustle and bustle of the London Docklands is appearing, and you can almost hear the shouts of sailors as they unload beautiful smelling cedar and huge jars filled with Levantine wine, delivering them to sem-priests on the quieter surburban fringes who are parading round in leopard fur cloaks, with the head left on in all it’s glory.

It just goes to show how little we know even about some of the most studied monuments in history. It should be no surprise then that we are still discovering startling things about the human past which are even further back through the mists of time.

I have been following the recent furores in the news about our human ancestors with interest. Human evolution has always been an interest of mine, and it have always been pretty mournful that I was never able to take modules in it at university. The discovery that between 2% and 4% of the genetic blueprint of modern non-Africans came from the Neanderthals pretty firmly puts the flag in the camp of those who always supported the idea interbreeding must have occurred. Although it seems they gave us some not-so-nice genes – such as those causing type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and, strangely, smoking addiction – it’s thanks to them that those of us up north have the more handy benefit of thicker skin, nails and hair to keep us warm in precisely the kind of weather we’re currently suffering. Hot on the heels of this news was the subsequent announcement by te same research team that Neanderthal genomes have been found present in the Khoisian tribes of South Africa, groups that speak in a unique clicking language and were previously thought to have genetically split from other human groups long before any others. According to David Reich from Harvard University, this indicates a back-to-Africa migration about 3000 years ago. Evidently, all over the world we share a slight Neanderthal heritage.

My favourite of these archaeology announcements, however, I think is the discovery of ancient footprints on the Norfolk coast last week. The footprints, which were found by Dr Ashton of the British Museum, are 800,000 years old and the oldest such found outside Africa. Study of the foot sizes suggests a family group, with one adult male and several smaller individuals, young males or perhaps females. 

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Looks just like the imprints you make on the beach (Courtesy of Martin Bates)

The prints were revealed by a rough tide washing away layers of gravel which had preserved them ever since they were made. Within two weeks these fleeting links to the past were washed away, with archaeologists racing against the clock in freezing conditions to record them before they vanished forever. 

What I find draws me to this find is the snapshot it provides of one moment. It flashes up in my mind so vividly, this group making their way barefoot across the landscape to -where? What were they thinking as they walked? Perhaps, like many families travelling today, they were having a big argument with Dad about whether they were going the wrong way and had got lost. 

Sentimental, perhaps, but it is this feeling that history is somehow linked to the present that intrigues and fascinates so many people. These are just a tiny selection of the new discoveries popping up in the news weekly, and it is nice to see that this year, academia is all guns ahead for announcing these important discoveries as much, and as publicly, as possible.

My old trowel.

Musings on Funding

It’s been a while since my last post, and for that you can blame the seasonal lurgy lurking about. But all my time sniffling into tissues inside has given me lots of time to ponder about various things. One thing that kept bubbling up in my brain was the trials and tribulations of heritage funding in the current climate, and particularly the rise of one source. Everywhere you seem to turn in the heritage sector at the moment, the Heritage Lottery Fund has swept in as a corporate saviour. For once, the funds actively try to support community projects, encouraging local groups to apply in for any amount from £3000 to over 5 million. They’re the driving force behind the transformation of Stonehenge with its spanking new visitor centre; and whether you think its a feast or a flop its nice to see someone taking an active interest in preserving the site for a change. The St Mary’s university church in Oxford, opposite my old college, has been attempting to raise the money to restore its degrading roof for years; the HLF has recently stepped into the ring and now the church looks good as new (although Oxford is still full of scaffolding during the down season). The Future Curators project, where early career curators can develop skills and contacts spending six months working at the British Museum and a year at a sister museum, is funded by them; as is the Inspired by the Crystal Palace Subway project I am a part of. I was never a fan of playing the lottery, but now whenever my Nana buys her ticket I feel like there’s hope left for the heritage sector!

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Thanks guys!

One of the many intermittent jobs I have taken on in this year of semi-retirement and baking is working as a tour guide for the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, something else partially funded by the HLF. Indirectly, I owe my job to them! The library originated through the efforts of one man, Dr. Alfred Wiener, to record the anti-Semitic propaganda and activities he noticed in the 1920s and ended up being used not only by the British Ministry of Information during WWII but also to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Every Tuesday at 1pm a tour is run, open to the public, which is normally started by a brief explanation of the history of the library and its founder; but currently an exhibition is being held marking the 80th anniversary of the library’s foundation. This display goes into a great deal of fascinating detail, focusing not only on Wiener’s early life writing against anti-Semitism, but also on the active role the library plays in memorialising individuals and in modern genocide studies. It recently received a selection of documents from the Rwandan community and the exhibition also holds a drawing done by a Darfuri child depicting the attacks on his village, one of hundreds used as evidence in court cases. It’s only on until the 19th February so get down there!

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The Wiener Library slap bang in the museum district of Russell Square

One of my favourite things about living in the Big Smoke is the sheer number of historical buildings and places packed into every available corner. People often act disbelieving when I wax lyrical on how wonderful London is, but how can I not when there are 240 museums alone?! How they all keep afloat is beyond me, but must be a testimony to some pretty determined finance officers behind the scenes.  Unfortunately, one area where funding is still super-tight is in research. Most PhD application deadlines have now passed and people will be waiting for funding news, where the forecast is depressing. However, the determination by museum and heritage groups to ensure access to the public, as well as the amazing free exhibitions on offer, shows that their passion for protecting shared human history has not been forgotten in the all-too-common scrambles for public money. This at least makes me think that one day, I might end up with a job 😀

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All Hallows by the Tower stained glass – some of these buildings can still be seen today

Time for some Pastry Experimentation

Everyone has a perfect apple pie. People are suprisingly picky. Mine was always my Nana’s. Growing up, I would refuse to eat any other pie, mostly because she mashed her apples and shop-bought ones tended to have apple slices…to this day I can’t eat those slithery apple slices….

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Not a fan…

Her pastry was thick and crumbly, very traditional. But, what with the amount of mince pies I managed to consume over Christmas, I noticed the difference between shop pie shortcrust and the one I made was enormous…particularly when I tried a hand at my own minces pies and they came out like Hagrid’s rock-cakes. 

I had a poke through some recipe books and all the shortcrust pastries seemed the same; even the supposedly rich ones just whacked in an extra egg or a teaspoon more sugar. THEN. In a Marks and Sparks basic, boring little baking book I was idly flicking through, out popped THE PERFECT PASTRY. Light. Sweet. Crispy on the top. Able to hold a shape rather than fall apart the minute you slide it off the dish. So I thought I’d share it with you. Prepare for appreciative silence round the table.

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The perfect pastry…

The ingredients are much richer than your average pastry. 350g flour. 125g butter. 125g sugar. pinch of salt. 2 eggs plus one yolk. 

It didn’t even include directions, but I went with the old safe system passed down through Manchester; rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs; add the sugar and salt; make a well in the centre and pour in the eggs, very firmly whisked (I was once scorned by my Nana for ludicrously weak egg whisking…); mix together with a wooden spoon until it comes together and then get squeezing. 

This is where my little confession of the week goes. In trying to get my historical consultancy business off the ground, I thought it might be useful to get an agent, for media-related roles. Now, as usual, I think the agency took one look at my CV and thought ‘Hell no!’, but, through my wit and charm (*annoying nagging), they eventually asked if I had any footage to send them, as a sort of portfolio-type thing I guess. ‘Of course!’ was my answer. ‘Of course not!’ was the answer in my head, and so I scuttled off to try and think of something I could video WITHOUT it looking like I desperately lay down to do their bidding. The only thing I could think of (as I thought me sitting before a screen, explaining the intricacies of Third Intermediate Period bowls, might not be found enjoyable by the majority of media moguls), was to make this pastry, and have my poor, long-suffering fiancé film me. 

Aside from the fact I for some reason have an odd twang to my accent on camera (I blame years of watching Friends mixing with a Manchester accent), it seemed to go quite well, particularly as making the pastry nicely distracted me. Apart from the times when my British Bake Off/Nigella watching crept out to bite me on the arse. References to giving the pastry ‘a good hard squeeze’ appeared at times unfortunately, and other…interesting observations concerning the buttery, sticky nature of it. Possibly why I have never heard from the agents since. Well, if you scare that easy!

ANYWAY, back to the recipe. It’s more important than usual to let the finished pastry rest in the fridge for an hour, because it is so very very sticky; this also means it requires your hand to be in the flour bag back and forth lest it glues itself to the surface. But, it fits in the tin perfectly. I use a small piece of pastry to press the pie body into the zig-zags of a pie tin (there must be some professional word for this tin, but I have absolutely no idea what it might be…). Then you can fill it with whatever you fancy – some scrummy mushy apple in my case. Be warned in the case of tinned fruit however, lest you encounter the British Bake Off nightmare- THE SOGGY BOTTOM…..

This lot will not be impressed when faced with a soggy bottom

This lot will not be impressed when faced with a soggy bottom

I’m pretty content with my new pastry recipe. However, my  Mum tells stories of my Great-Aunty Ethel’s pies, made of legendary, delicious pastry, the best she ever tasted; apparently made of little more than flour and lard. I keep meaning to have a go with this lard business, but thus far, the terrifyingly enormous fat content warning splashed across the front of the packaging has filled me with too much alarm. Maybe that will be my next pastry experiment…..

An archaeologist abroad

Well, sort of. London certainly feels like a country all of its own sometimes! After so much manic socialising at Christmas, the fiancé and I decided on a Bridget Jones-style mini-break as a change of scene, and thanks to Groupon, we got it half price with dinner slung in (always a winner). I’ve been obsessed with going to the Cotswolds ever since I read Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess (showing my academic side here…) so obviously I picked Blockley in Gloucestershire. And obviously it rained the entire time.

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Broadway in deep, rainy mist

Still even in rain the Cotswolds managed to be beautiful; we even went on a bit of a hike! This was distinctly out of my fiance’s comfort zone; particularly since he refused to buy wellies…. This blog does not recommend trainers as floodwear. Halfway up what turned out to be a tramp up a long hill I remembered why I don’t like hiking, out of breath with only more uphill ahead of me – I prefer walking to GET places- but when we got to Broadway folly with the Cotswolds all spread out below us I decided it was, on balance, worth the short walk. I think we must have been the only walkers out that day using umbrellas however….everyone else was in true hiker gear, anoraks and walking sticks included. No thank you!

Broadway Folly

Broadway Folly

I loved the Cotswolds for its honey-coloured stone buildings, some thatched (a feature I’m only a TINY bit obsessed with) and most in the smaller villages all smushed up together to the extent some were partially underground. Thanks to growing up in a cottage I get particularly fond when I see latticed windows too….all to the dismay of the fiancé, who would feel like an elf in Bilbo Baggin’s den if I miraculously came into money and bought one.

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Gorgeous AND chocolate containing!

However the archaeologist in me got particularly excited when, perusing the local maps to decide on our mini sodden hike, I noticed the spot of ‘Upton (abandoned) medieval village’. Why no one else I asked was even remotely interested in this is beyond me. 

Apparently there are thousands of abandoned villages in Britain – Stephen Fisk has set up a website to record and display photographs of these quite haunting places, see http://www.abandonedcommunities.co.uk/index.html to take a look, although Upton is not currently included. I imagine this is because all  that remains of the village is earthworks. Excavations by the School of History of the University of Birmingham between 1959 and 1968 revealed 29 buildings. In 1973 what apparently is known as a watching brief (you learn something new every day!) was set up for 20 days as a pipe was built through the area, and this confirmed the Roman origins of the village through sherds, walls and hearth remains, as well as possible timber footprints. Excavators theorise that the site may have prehistoric origins, although a substantial modern excavation would be required to assess this thoroughly. The Trans Bristol Gloucestershire Archaeology Society 102 (1984) has full details of the observations made here.

Villages have been abandoned through our history for myriad reasons; disease, war, forced resettlement – I have a vague memory of a village in the North which was flooded by the sea and a nearby resident stating that the church belltower was still visible at low tide, but can’t for the life of me remember its name, so if any of you have any clues do let me know! Upton is thought to have been a victim of forced resettlement by local elites, who wanted the area for sheep farming.

 

Wharram Percy's abandoned church: one of the best known abandoned villages in the UK. Photo courtesy of Gamedecor.com

Wharram Percy’s abandoned church: one of the best known abandoned villages in the UK. Photo courtesy of Gamedecor.com

Even though my interest was piqued by Upton, and we did try to find it, I actually couldn’t. We drove to the area we assumed it was and attempted to get down a byway, but this turned out to be private land, and the torrential rain put me off getting out and trawling the woods and fields, possibly squashing a half-flooded potato field along the way. In the summer I have every intention of tramping over the whole of the Cotswolds if necessary to find the damned place, but it’s a shame there’s no sign to distinguish one field from the next….I’ll have to get my archaeology glasses on and scour the ground.

Meanwhile, I’m back in the Big Smoke, standing outside border control in a mini hurricane, wearing evidently not waterproof boots. Unfortunately, wellies are not considered appropriate office wear.

 

Christmas Giggles

It’s quite amusing that, while I’m under qualified for Egyptology roles (read: PhD-less), it appears I am also Undesirable No. 1 for the more standard job roles. I have made my bed, and now I must lie in it! 

Now, I’m not entirely sure what a description of the ideal candidate for some of these companies is, but from the rejection reasons and odd interview questions I’ve had (and tried so hard not to laugh at while still in front of the interviewer!), an Egyptologist certainly does not fit the bill. So, for my  Christmas blog, and safely after my suitability for the posts has already been decided, I thought I’d make a list of the most ridiculous reasons for not hiring me, and throw out a question: can anyone top them??

1. The Classic: ‘Thank you for your application; unfortunately, the calibre of applications this year was extremely high, and your skills and experience were not quite in the area we were looking for’. Feedback level = Zero.

2. The Stupid: “You’d be bored in this job.” This is my most common one. Yeah, guys, because being employed is so very riveting. ‘Scuse me while I rush back to doing…nothing….

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3. The Nice Guy: “We just don’t feel that you really want to be in this field.” I always figured having a passion for a job was something quite rare; only applicable for the dream career that it takes a while to conquer. From Sainsbury’s stacker to retail assistant, if you don’t prove you’ve been aiming for the field since you were 14, you don’t have the team spirit it takes to make it!

4. The Patronising: “You’re too clever for this kind of work”. I’m unsure if they mean this as a compliment, while they have a bit of a pointed jab at their  current employees….but 

5. The Disdainful: “How would you cope with the social aspect of the team, because we have a very young workforce, and you don’t seem like you would fit in.” This was on account of the fact that, when they asked me what my hobbies were, I thought ‘drinking with my friends’ sounded ever so slightly unprofessional. Apparently gardening was NOT the right thing to replace it with. Ooops.

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Gardening…not so cool

6. The Degree-haters: “Don’t you think you should have spent a year in business instead of in a Masters?” No. Because I’m only doing this until I can do the Dream Job, not because I have an insatiable urge to type up your spreadsheets. Unfortunately, you can’t say this. And I have a hard enough time keeping my face under control so as not to reveal it.

And then there’s the less imaginative employers who simply never reply to a job application…

A Masters seems to overqualify you for anything that makes any money, while underqualifying you for anything you actually give a damn about. So while I wait for PhD opportunities I’ve given up trying to convince someone to hire me and come to the conclusion I should just make my own. This Egyptologist is going into business! Website to follow as soon as I can comprehend the complexities of domains and design.

Merry Christmas to one and all!

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