Sunday, 22 August 2010

How long is your word count?

So a little on the current project, and what I've been doing academically.

I like to think I've got wide interests in Archaeology, and I try to absorb all of the knowledge I can, but in the end you have to specialise. My favourite topics have been, by degrees, prospection (that which Time Team and NOBODY ELSE calls Geophys...), human bones, animal bones, and textiles. The one I've ended up with, however, is human palaeoecology, with a heavy concentration on palaeoethnobotany. That's essentially plants and how we use them, although I've spent lots of this year branching out to include animal bones as well. It's all about ecosystems and economics, stable environments, fringe environments, and just how we as a species have managed to cling onto existence for quite so very long. Quite a pressing issue actually in these days of environmental calamity.

For some reason the following appeared when I Google Image Searched environmentalism... guess it's sort of a self-sustaining environment...
Aaaanyway... Palaeoecology. It all started somewhere in the middle of my undergrad degree, when the panic that is "what the hell do I write my Dissertation on" was just starting to set in. An esteemed pig bone specialist (yes, such things do exist - it's interesting stuff. More later probably.) of our department was giving a seminar on the origins of agriculture, and happened to mention that there were a couple of charred peas in the environmental record, which no-one had done anything with but could produce a dissertation topic.

"Bandwagon!" thinks I... and like the keen student I am (sometimes...) I stayed behind afterwards, and we went to visit my now supervisor (a known pyromaniac), and an idea was born. Setting fire to things - For Science! Not only is this a recognised technique, but actually a very necessary part of environmental archaeology. Calibration preservation studies (Boardman and Jones 1990 on cereal grains if anyone is really that interested, or indeed reading this at all). Essentially I would be taking an area ("Why not Cyprus - I have a contact there, you could go on a dig!" says the supervisor), working out its most frequently found pulses and fruit (Figs, Peas, Chickpeas, Lentils, Olives, and Pistachios as it happens) and...well... setting them on fire. At first in a Kiln to observe changes at known temperatures and then just chucking them on some bonfires! Great fun! A trip to Cyprus and loads of fire! I was sold!

You see, most organic remains found in archaeology are charred - charred remains preserve well and don't get destroyed as easily by organic decay. The charring process is destructive in itself however, and so it is important to work out how much of an assemblage might have been destroyed in the very fire which preserved it. Needless to say the trip to Cyprus was fantastic fun and the excavation very interesting, and the experimental preservation study actually rather fun, as well as providing me with a pretty good final mark for my degree.

This sort of thing, while it may not be as thrilling as being chased by Nazis or dodging rolling rocks, certainly gives me something to do. Which is why for my guided study (essentially a practice research paper) this year, I performed follow-up experiments focusing more on the hearth based burnings. If all goes to plan these might end up getting published at some point next year, so wish me luck and watch this space!

 It just so happened that the aforementioned pyromaniac supervisor also helps run the department's MSc in Human Palaeoecology, which is how I ended up doing it, and why I'm here in the middle of August, three days before my birthday, writing about castles (I's smallest violin!). At some point along the way as the undergrad was wrapping up another member of the department got in touch, and asked me to come and help with his castle. It's a new excavation, and very exciting, and we found stone remains, and gosh its wonderful. Anyway as part of this process I've ended up floating around 60 soil samples to find (as one of my colleagues put it) about six bits of charcoal. OK not literally, but it certainly feels like it. The preservation at the site is...odd, and the sampling has been very much as and when the excavator could manage it and within the constraints of bringing them all back on a 9 hour drive in a minibus.

So since the second four week excavation in April that's been me, surrounded by mud and muddy charcoal, and latterly by excel spreadsheets. No wonder the research fatigue is setting in. It's finally looking like it's getting there though, and as hand in is September 10th this is no bad thing.

One thing which never fails to cheer me up is the bunker mentality of my fellow inmates... sorry classmates.  There's an air of competition around sometimes, particularly when it comes to in class debates of finding funding, but when it comes to the long grind that is the write up nothing helps more than hearing your fellow sufferers groaning under the weight of word counts which sound even more astronomical. Even those who have fled to far flung quarters of the world (a couple of undergrad classmates have switched university for masters, at least one who is still here at Durham has fled the country to ahem "find solitude in writing" or some such). check in from time to time to share the pain, and that feeling of celebration when another thousand word marker point is reached. So good luck and keep going all you thesis-ers out there. First the undergrads left, then the school exam results came out, and now it's just us, still here, plodding along as ever in our caves. We can do this! Motivational SPEEEEECH!

Once it's over? Well that's when real life hits. Nobody wants that...

Stay ancient everyone, and enjoy the summer!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

I got first post!

Hardly a surprise on my own Blog I suppose...

So, a bit about me,

Having been educated at a well respected private school and done three years of a BSc archaeology degree at Durham University (almost on a whim initially, because let's face it Indiana Jones is cool and one day the world might know me as "the guy off Time Team" as well), I actually realised I rather enjoyed the subject. It gets you out and about. It's interesting. You travel to odd places, learn about other cultures both ancient and modern, and when people ask you what do, the response is always "isn't that interesting... did you see that article about the gold hoard/that Roman stuff/those skeletons or even occasionally/those dinosaurs (facepalm). People are interested, and with good reason.

Unfortunately, that comment is usually followed by "but there's no money in it". It's true, there isn't. For me more than most, a finishing MSc student with few prospects, but lots of hope. My ambition is to do a PhD, and then teach and research, hopefully in the U.S.A. - I'm attracted by the lifestyle, the money, and the prestige academics have over there which is somewhat lacking in my own home nation. I want to do a PhD for all of the right reasons, a love of knowledge, a passion for my subject, and a will to teach others and improve the world's knowledge base, as well as some of the wrong ones. I challenge anyone studying for a PhD or with one to deny that there isn't just a tinge of envy/pride (respectively) whenever they hear the title Doctor. Calling yourself Doctor will always be cool, it signifies an achievement in academics which is enough to mark a change in social identity. At my BSc graduation I was lucky (?) enough to be the final graduand before the PhDs, and after we had shaken the hand of the Chancellor, the first thing they did was start congratulating each other: "Well done doctor!" "Congratulations Doctor" and so on. Quite right too. And of course...

I've begun negotiations to begin my own PhD in 2010/11, and things are looking good, assuming the funding can be found. I have a couple of excellent supervisors in potentia, a department with a good reputation and a subject which I enjoy. My research interests are in experimental human palaeoecology, and landscape change and environmental determinism (try saying that after several pints) I've been told to take a gap year, essentially, before taking the plunge and signing my life over for three plus years, to get experience, published, and funding. Very sensible, particularly as research fatigue has begun to set in at the tail end of the Dissertation writing process. We shall see. As to what I'm going to do with my now copious free time and lack of funds... we shall see that as well.

I'm currently in a weird limbo, student accommodation ran out in July but I'm still working, so living in my girlfriend's house until I can get set up on "the next phase". A job, flat, and life while the PhD is cooked up. She's a lawyer in making with very clear cut aims and objectives in life and a Psychology degree to get first. She also has ambitions to be academically published before me of which... more later, but suffice to say we've been together for five months and are still keeping each other in line.

The rest? I'm an incurable geek. We're talking encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Final Fantasy enthusiast. Raved about Inception. Have all Discworld books chronologically arranged above my bed, next to the obligatory Lord of the Rings Poster, and on that note have read the Silmarillion. Twice. Live for Doctor Who (and Amy Pond) week by week. Absolute sucker for a good story, and a total crybaby in cinemas. I'm also a musician in a jack of all trades sort of way. Have sung in various choirs and as a soloist at various levels from professional to drunken at the back of the pub (those two often at the same time). Play the organ at my local church back home when I can (in it for the music not the religion unfortunately) and am a sever enthusiast on the instruments. Can even occasionally me seen trying to make a nice noise on a violin, but never succeeding (I'm not sure it's possible). I love the theatre, particularly musical theatre, and am an incurable thesp, which goes in some way towards my ambitions as a lecturer, or even an archaeological television presenter in the Alice Roberts vein. I also enjoy some sports, although fitness freakery is definitely not my thing. Swimming and squash are the main couple. I'm also a nearly pathological coke addict...

Tell me this doesn't make you thirsty...

As for this blog? Well... it's main purpose is to amuse, and perhaps educate a little, as I make my trial and error way through the corridors of real life and academia, as a wet behind the ears graduate. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can an archaeologist achieve wealth, fame, and happiness? What is the meaning of life? And where in the world is the monkey? These and many more questions will be...attempted. Until next time then read, comment, laugh, cry, wail, mourn, pine, perish, flip, flop, fly, take it easy and enjoy!