Snake guards: a to-die-for accessory


Serving as a human scale for an erosional scarp in Oklahoma, while modeling the 2008 tan, heavy duty canvas style snake guard

When I was younger, I was a soccer player. I wasn’t the greatest, by any measure, but I was really fast. My coaches always tried to get me to wear shinguards, but I refused, because they were uncomfortable and slowed me down. This all changed in college, when the other team had no qualms about hacking at my unprotected shins. Lucky for me that they didn’t know that I wasn’t wearing a cup!

Pardon the rather light-hearted introduction to a very serious topic: safety. Archaeologists pride themselves on their eagerness willingness to work in the meanest terrain, and under the harshest conditions, in order to get the job done and have a story to tell over beers. We know we can count on our keen eyes to spot danger, and besides, “That never actually happens!”

Well, let me tell you, snakebites do happen. According to Juckett and Hancox (2002), approximately 8,000 venomous snakebites occur annually in the U.S.A., with no more than 12 fatalities. Apparently, this is outdated information according to the abstract of Gold et al. 2002, as the total is down to 2,000 (and yes, those are my attempts at having actual citations in this blog post). While many bites are dry, any venomous snakebite is dangerous as a major infection risk. After all, they’re eating live, wild rodents and other animals!

I first learned about snake guards in 2003, while I was attending the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project field school as a 31-year-old master’s student. I knew the jungle would be full of wild animals, but I never thought about poisonous snakes, much less the fer-de-lance (warning: graphic image!), perhaps the most dangerous venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. I certainly never expected to kill one coiled between the feet of  two colleagues and myself!

Needless to say, when I told my family about this and all the other snake encounters we had during my two-month stint, they were a bit worried. When I mentioned returning for the spring 2004 session, my mother insisted on buying me a pair of snake guards to wear in the field! As it would turn out, I ended up loaning them out to someone else who was doing serious jungle survey, as my site was only a short walk from the camp (sorry Mom).

I started working as a Cultural Resources Management field tech in May 2004, after returning from Belize, and true to my word I wore those snake guards whenever I was on a survey. That is, except when it was cold, as the snakes are hibernating. Of course, this would come back to bite mein the ankle.

Since that day, I have always had my snake guards on while surveying, except in the dead of winter. I’ve grown accustomed to them to the point that I feel weird when I’m in field clothes and not wearing them. Not only that, but I’ve certainly come across my share of venomous snakes in the field, and was always glad to know that I was protected from all the ones I didn’t see. They also work very well at protecting my lower leg from briars, cacti, sawgrass, and all the other pricky/pokey/pointy things I have to walk through to do my job.

Here’s where it gets serious again: if you work in an area where there’s a serious threat of venomous snakes (and I’m no herpetologist, but I assume that’s a lot of places at least part of the year), you should consider investing in some form of snake protection, be it snake guards/gaiters or snake boots. Even better, if you work for a CRM firm, see if you can get your employer to buy some for the staff. A lot of the big-money clients are putting a heavy emphasis on company safety records, and a major recordable is a big strike that might cost a chance at a fat contract. One of my company’s largest clients has made snake protection a required part of the personal protective equipment, as a form of incident prevention after numerous “near hit” reports during the survey project.

And just in case you still think that what happened to me was something that almost “never happens”, or that I’m just unlucky (which isn’t entirely untrue…), I know two other people in Texas who were saved from snakebites by their snake guards! In both cases, neither person was even aware that they were being struck repeatedly until they wondered about the weird tapping sound/feeling on their leg.

I no longer have my original pair of snake guards, as they became too broken to be effective or comfortable. But the pair I currently have, similar to the ones I’m modeling above, go with me on every project. They’re currently sitting in my cubicle at work, ready for action. And they’ll most definitely be along for the trip to Turkey when I’m surveying for the Maender Archaeological Project!

Tools of the Trade

Archaeological tools
Tools of the trade for terrestrial archaeologists.

This tool role, the prize possession, and creation, of one of my great friends and fellow archaeologists, Chris Valvano, always seems to have the right tool for the job. Created over years, with colorful strips of leather scraps, the roll itself is as much a tool as the tools it carries. The photo was snapped last summer, at the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program’s Field School, at which Chris and I were supervisors. The photo was taken by MSU Photographer Kurt Stepnitz, a regular visitor of our excavation sites all over campus. You can catch more of his archaeology photos here. Special thanks to Michigan State University for giving us permission to use this photo.

“Photo by Kurt Stepnitz, courtesy MSU University Relations

CFPo: Books

A shelf of many books
Consideration. Photo by LollyKnit.

What book would you recommend to someone to get them thinking about archaeology in a new way? For August we’d like to know what you’d recommend for holiday reading. It needn’t be an archaeology book. It could even be fiction. All it needs to be is a book that you think deserves to be read. Entries can be long-book length discussions, we have the spare electrons, or they could be back of the book blurb length. Whatever it is, if you liked it we want to hear about it.

If you don’t have a Then Dig account, leave a comment below and we’ll set you up with one.

Photo: Consideration by LollyKnit. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

The Archaeology of Archaeology

In the 1970s, Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland, the first capital city of 17th century Maryland, undertook extensive archaeological excavations at the St. John’s site. We were not the first archaeologists to look at this site and we could see the evidence of St. Mary’s archaeological predecessors. Dr. H. Chandlee Forman explored the site briefly in the 1960s. The most common artifacts resulting from this previous campaign were cigarette filters. Most were too deteriorated for identification beyond broad functional attribution since they were primarily cellulose, but there were some examples which could be identified. These represented filters from True© cigarettes. True cigarettes utilized an “advanced filter system” that incorporated an element of plastic (see the ad below).  According to court records filed as part of one of the massive suits brought under the tobacco litigation, True© was distributed nationally beginning in 1966 .

True cigarette filter on the left.


[yt video=V_gniQQaUwU] Advert for True Cigarettes [/yt]

In addition to the cigarette filters, we recovered pieces of a small, aluminum pan of the type associated with small commercial fruit pies in the last century. Fragments of  20th century bottle glass represented beverage bottles, a notable example being “RC Cola” (Royal Crown) which was developed in the south in the second quarter of the 20th century.

There were also actual colonial artifacts which had been modified by the earlier archaeologists. The most notable of these was a ceramic roof tile which bore the initial “HCF”, a date, and the provenience of the exploratory trench it was placed at the end of.


Perhaps the favorite artifact recovered from the excavations was a 20th century masons’ trowel. The trowel was intact with the exception of the wooden handle. The ferule which surrounded the base of the handle was very well preserved. Alas, it was not a Marshalltown!

Trowel excavated at St. Johns site at Historic St. Mary's City.


So that we don’t feel “holier than thou” in these matters, when HSMC returned to the site to undertake archaeology in preparation for the development of the exhibit which now surrounds the architectural remains we again found evidence of previous archaeology – this time it was us. In the course of the excavations, numerous forming nails (double headed nails for stringing squares), gutter spikes, and Mason jar lids (used as datum corners) were found. But this should delight us, rather than cause despair. It simply proves again that the underlying ideas of archaeology hold true regardless of how recently the cultural activity which led to the deposition.

One final note on the archaeology of archaeology. Israeli archaeologists working in Jerusalem recovered shoe and beer bottle fragments left behind by 19th century British archaeologists. The correlation between beer and archaeology have long been known in the profession (note the huge increase in archaeological publications following the repeal of prohibition…or was that just the WPA)?

Clipboards and Context

Archaeologists love their trowels, but for my money, when I go into the field, the thing I want with me at all times is my clipboard.

I have this one:

which I bought at Staples in 2007 and have never regretted. Technically the box makes it a little more than a clipboard, but I like it because it’s metal, durable, and holds a ton of forms, tags, bags, and graph paper.

Tracing the history of clipboards is frustratingly difficult. As near as I can tell, the clipboard is a 20th century invention. The first mention in the OED comes from the 1907 “Army and Navy Stores Catalogue” which lists:

The ‘clip’ boards for patience and bridge.‥ This board is fitted with nickel clamps on each side to keep it perfectly rigid.” (Army and Navy Cooperative Society 1969: 380).

This definition coincided with the transformation of clerical work into a full adjunct of management and organization of business (Braverman 1974: 304-312). In other words, clipboards appeared at a time when people needed new ways to track and organize systems of people and objects in space with the expansion of managerial capitalism.

Now, when people think of the clipboard, they’re more likely to think of “Cut and Paste” functions on the computer. The computer clipboard functions as a temporary space (usually RAM), for storage of text, images, or other material for later use. Though versions of something like “cut and paste” had existed since the 1960s, the clipboard system that we know today had its origins in Xerox PARC and the development of personal computer (Moggridge 2007: 63-68).

But what both of these meanings and histories have in common with archaeological use is that, in both cases, the clipboard is a container of context. In the former, the relationships between commodities, costs, and locations formed a set of material relationships that had to be maintained on paper. In the latter, the relationship between information (text, pictures, etc…), RAM location, and a user interface creates an informational context.

And of course, for archaeologists, context has always been one of our central metaphors (Shanks and Tilley 1987: xix, see also Lucas 2001 for a historical perspective). The idea of the relationship between objects is as important as the objects themselves is what separates modern archaeology from antiquarianism, and from other disciplines that abstract objects from the material and social relations in which they are enmeshed. We’ve spent a lot of time theorizing what the relationship between context and human “culture” is, but almost all of us agree that there is something about being human that can be inferred and understood by looking at the arrangements and agglomerations of objects deposited by humans in the ground. That’s context.

The great irony of archaeology is that we have to destroy context through excavation in order to recover it—under the ground, it’s invisible and protected. To explain the past, we need context, but to get context, we need to excavate. Clipboards sit at the intersection of this process, because the recording of context, of the relationships of objects in the ground, is what allows us to get at culture in the past. It’s why, more often than not, we spend at least as much time writing and taking notes as we do excavating.

For reasons that most archaeologists (including me) haven’t figured out, non-archaeologists do not have this concept as a metaphor. I’ve been involved in excavations across New England, many of them with public components, and in every case, the most popular question asked by people who visit the sites is the same:

“Have you found anything good yet?”

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love this question, but it’s kind of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful, because it’s a teaching moment—someone is interested in what you’re doing, and you get an opportunity to explain it. Unfortunately, the question usually recapitulates the public vision of archaeology—namely, that we dig up objects for their own sake, independent of context. It’s been my experience that most of the people who come to archaeological sites think of us as over-glorified treasure hunters. And getting the conversation around to context can be a cumbersome and difficult project.

But this is where my clipboard sits again at the intersection of context, excavation, and explanation. Whenever I get this question, I pull out my clipboard, and talk about context. I show maps I’ve drawn, unfinished bags of artifacts with field tags inside noting their location, the excavation forms half filled in—whatever I’ve got. And once people get that idea—that we’re primarily excavating context as opposed to artifacts, then everything we’ve found is interesting, because everything is part of that context. Every artifact, ecofact, and feature was deposited in an assemblage as part of a cultural process which the analysis of context allows us to explain.

The Archaeologist and his assemblage, ca. 2007. Note the clipboard in the foreground.

So my clipboard ends up being a carrier of context, and allows me to integrate excavation and explanation.  Not too shabby for a piece of metal with a clip…


Braverman, H. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Lucas, Gavin. 2001. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. New York, Routledge.

Moggridge, Bill. 2007. Designing Interactions. 1st ed. The MIT Press.

Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Tilley. 1987. Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Army and Navy Co-Operative Society. 1969. Yesterday’s Shopping: Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907. New impression. David & Charles PLC.

These Boots

Boots by Colleen Morgan
Time to retire another pair of boots. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

This week, we begin a new themed issue: Tools. Archaeologists have always had a unique tool set, often adapted from other disciplines: we use masonry tools, gardening tools, and paintbrushes. Whatever will help get the job done, and done well. It was a post by Colleen Morgan on her blog Middle Savagery that sparked the idea for this issue: her tribute to her boots, which carried her through many countries and many excavations, made me realize that, often, our tools can be more than the items we use to do our jobs: they can illicit memories, carry stories, and have special meaning to us and our discipline. For the rest of the month, you will get to enjoy posts about archaeological tools. These range from a post about archaeological tools discovered archaeologically, tools given as gifts from other archaeologists, or why certain tools are important to the discipline.

So, in tribute to Colleen’s post, our photo of the week is her photo of her boots. Hopefully, they will be able to last us through the month…

Photo: Boots by Colleen Morgan. Licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

One past or two? Ancient History and Archaeology in archaic Sicily.

I’ve been looking at the colonisation of Sicily by the Greeks in the early 1st millennium BC. Some time around the mid-eighth century it seems as though parts of Greece exploded leaving Greek cities around the Mediterranean. It’s not that distance so much that interests me it’s the distance between Ancient History and Archaeology in explaining how this happened. A lot of ancient historians see archaeology as a method of filling in the gaps in the historical record. I think there’s much more to be said for using them as two independent approaches to a common past.

Blue pins: Greece, Chalkis and Eretria Euboea - Italy, Pithekoussai and Naxos
Yellow Pins: Greece, Corinth - Italy, Syracuse
Green Pins: Greece, Megara Nicaea - Italy, Megara Hybalea
Red Pin: Italy, Himera
View Greek Colonies in a larger map

Ancient Historians have Greek colonisation pretty much worked out, barring the finer details. In the case of the western Mediterranean the earliest vessels set sail from Euboea, the first colony not being on Sicily at all but Pitheokoussai in the Bay of Naples around 750 BC. Dates for Sicily in the magisterial An inventory of archaic and classical poleis, which I’m about to deeply disagree with, 735/4 BC for Naxos from Euboea, 733/2 for Syracuse from Corinth and 728 for Megara Hyblaea from Megara Nicaea in mainland Greece. The prevarication on the dates is because Greek years did not start and end at the same time as ours. The dates and origins are derived from Thucydides and there’s good reason to assume they’re accurate. In the case of Pithkoussai, the earliest layers do have Euboean pottery. The same goes for Naxos. In Syracuse, the earliest pottery is indeed Corinthian, if you ignore Euboean and Athenian pottery below the Corinthian (Boardman 1999:163-4) and the indigenous pottery that is found before settlement that continues during through to 650 BC at the site (Frasca 1983:597-8). Megara Hyblaea in contrast has Corinthian pottery in its early layers. The solution is to conclude that pottery is diagnostic, unless the answer is wrong in which case it’s merely evidence of trade. In this case the same is true for the east Greek wares (Boardman 1999:174).

Megara Hyblaea poses more of a problem. The earliest burials at the site are not typical of Megara Nicaea. In fact the homeland styles don’t start appearing till around 650 BC (Shepherd 1995:51-82). I’m kicking myself for not making a note where I read that the earliest letter forms in Megara Hyblaea were also not similar to Megara Nicaea. Finally temples in Megara Hyblaea do not appear till after about 650 BC. None of this proves that Megara Hyblaea was not founded from Megara Nicaea, and the historical record is wrong. However, if the historical record is accurate then is there likely to be a stronger archaeological trace of ethnic and economic links?

If these colonies didn’t come from Greek settlers arriving en masse then where did they come from? Syracuse is traditionally thought to be an excellent example of Greek settlement in action because a native settlement is clearly removed with a destruction layer and a Greek layer over the top. In fact the archaeological record is more of destruction lenses, with some native houses continuing in use and with some continued use of native pottery. Is this more indicative of Greek arrival in native settlements? Himera, founded in the mid-seventh century BC, was surrounded by indigenous settlements (Vassallo 1996). The shock of the arrival of this new city on the native settlements was negligible. The closest comparison I can think of is the Islamisation of Swahili towns on the East African coast. Wynne-Jones (2007, and other papers by other authors) note two possible origins for the self-identified Omani towns. Either they were settled by Omanis, or else élites attracted Omanis in via exchange and inter-marriage. The lack of settlement shock means that places like Kilwa Kisiwani are assumed to have been native developments that pull settlers in, rather than sites of settlers pushed out. The traditional model for Greek colonisation is a push model from a limited number of sites. Is a pull model feasible?

Ancient Historians are happy that cities could pull in trade, to account for inconvenient pottery at sites, so the possibility for pull colonisation is not in doubt. What is lacking is evidence this happened, but it is possible that the evidence is not in Sicily, but rather Greece. Olympia and Delphi are both home to treasuries from cities around the Greek world. These were both from homeland cities, and from colonies in the Mediterranean who were placing themselves in the heart of the Greek world. At Olympia we can see this started happening. Gela, a city in southern Sicily, put down one of the early treasuries (Gardiner, 1925 dates it to the second half of the seventh century BC, but most recent books I’ve read while fact-checking this give an uncited date in the sixth century BC. If you know where this date comes from I’d be delighted if you let me know in the comment box.) and many other cities from the west followed. None of this conclusively settles the argument in favour of a pull model, but it does raise the question as to why Thucydides is so uncritically followed by ancient historians who would normally pull out all sorts of overlooked detail with forensic skill. Ancient Historians in turn could ask, if the push model is flawed, why did Thucydides write about these pushes out to settle colonies – and this is where I’m most puzzled of all.

Thucydides was an Athenian general and his history is a History of the Peloponnesian War. The foundations of Sicilian colonies are mentioned, but they’re only mentioned as they are relevant to Thucydides’ aim, which is recording the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides wrote at the end of the fifth century BC. This means that he was not witness to the foundation events. Instead of recording the mid-eighth century and the settlement of Sicily, he is recording what people in the fifth century thought happened three hundred years earlier. This solves a lot of problems. For example, in the mid-eighth century BC a lot of Greek cities did not exist. Corinth only came into being as a polis around 750-ish BC, it organised quickly enough to send out fully fledged cities within twenty years. We have no date for the cities of Euboea forming, but if history is followed then they were establishing a colony at Pithekoussai before Corinth was a polis. Is perhaps more likely that Thucydides saw cities in Sicily and described the foundation of cities because what he knew where there were fifth-century cities that needed to be explained? Possibly, but then why the detail about the order of settlement?

Megara Hyblaea and petrochemical plants
Megara Hyblaea is surrounded by petrochemical plants, giving at a pervasive stench of death. The consequent lack of tourists and facilities gives it the impression of somewhere that was built to be an abandoned city.
There is a less manipulated version of the photo at Flickr.

The dates do not only give an account of when something happened, but also of precedence. The major sea routes to Sicily arrived first at Naxos, possibly because this was the polis closest to the striking landmark Mount Etna. It’s geographical location as the first place you arrive at in Sicily suggests that it should have chronological primacy too. Syracuse, with its power and harbour is clearly the next most prestigious city. Fifth-century Greeks would not have cared that eighth-century sailors beached their vessels rather than use harbour. The history then becomes not what happened, but a tale to explain why things are the way they are now. Puzzlingly, this is not new. It’s the first lesson on any ancient history course, so the emphasis on Thucydides as a reliable source is odd.

This doesn’t simply mean that archaeology is good and history bad. It does mean that using history to analyse archaeology and vice versa is a very poor substitute to using archaeology to analyse archaeology and history to analyse history. The archaeological record gives a very different story to late prehistoric Sicily than the history recorded by Thucydides. Yet at the same time, the historical record gives a much richer account of the local ethnicity and allegiances of the fifth century BC than the archaeology. Corinthian pottery might get everywhere, but the history clearly shows that does not make everyone Corinthian. It also opens another possibility that both archaeological and historical attempts to explain Greek colonisation in Sicily could be flawed.

The notion of Greek ethnicity is based in history. I believe that the history is anachronistic, but Hall (2004) goes further. He argues that the idea of a Greek ethnicity is, in this period, possibly anachronistic. Did a Greek identity arise as a response to increased interaction across the Mediterranean? It’s common for historians to talk about ancient Greeks as though they are one thing over the course of several hundred years. We see a process of becoming Greek, and by the fifth century there is a difference between the Greeks and the barbaroi. While the archaeological record shows Greek pottery getting everywhere, the ethnic information – that some people still thought of themselves as Sikels – is purely from the historical data, which is late fifth century. This is after the invasions from Persia in Greece, and the battles with Punic forces in Sicily. Is a hunt for Greek cities taking a recently developed sense of common identity and anachronistically searching for it into the past? Hall’s proposal raises the possibility that much work, including my own, is excessively teleological.

There was one past for archaic Sicily. Instinctively I can’t help but feel that approaches that pull archaeology and ancient history together should be a good thing. However, I wonder if there’s a danger that when you do try that it becomes effectively one discipline judged by the approach of another. By keeping a distance between the two approaches you get the advantage of two independent viewpoints.

Ruined Church

Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico
Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by Larry Miller.

It’s the last week of the distance theme this week, so I thought to close with this image from Hacienda Tabi, Mexico of a ruined church. Hacienda Tabi was the largest sugar plantation in the region. I know this because Larry Miller helpfully linked to an abstract on the topic. I chose this because it has both space and claustrophobia. You can see the arches going into the distance, but at the same time it’s clear that Nature is closing in from all sides.

Next week the topic is Tools, curated by Terry Brock. Having had a sneaky peak at some of the drafts going into the system I can say it looks like it’ll be well worth reading. You can get in contact with him @brockter on Twitter or via the Facebook page if you’d like to take part.

Photo: Untitled by Larry Miller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

Breaking the news

Sometimes, intercommunal distance can actually ease conversation, by freeing the conversants of the fear of causing offence or giving up power. Interpersonal distance can help communication too, by breaking up normal politesse on the rough terrain over which it is dragged or pushed – sudden meetings, awkward settings, imperfectly-spoken languages.

I experienced that, during my research into the destruction of cultural heritage during the Cyprus Conflict. One afternoon, I drove into a formerly-mixed village in Cyprus in a Turkish Cypriot car. When I asked, one of the Greek Cypriot residents immediately insisted that there had never been a mosque in the village. Then the Greek Cypriot asked me if I was Turkish Cypriot and, on finding out that I wasn’t, equally immediately pointed out the wasteland where the mosque had once stood.

Sometimes, information would breach emotional barriers and bond individuals and communities together. It would help people meet each other as individuals, rather than as representatives of groups (or as true representatives of groups being themselves, rather than as community members playing heroes, defending themselves against mythical enemies). Yet it cannot be communicated directly, because it would not be accepted as information if it were presented by the ‘enemy’ community.

I’m currently living in Kayseri, in southern Turkey. While walking around a suburb called Talas (or Mouttalas), I visited Yaman Dede Camii (or Panagia Rum Kilisesi) – the Mosque of Yaman Dede (or the Ottoman Greek Church of the Virgin Mary). I noticed some people who looked slightly less foreign than me, and realised they were Greek tourists.

The Christian Greeks filed up and down the steps to the church-mosque in small groups, each showing different understandings of history and attitudes towards Turks and Muslims. On our way up the steps, one woman read the brown sign that indicated both of the building’s identities. She rolled around her mouth the Turkish-language version (“Rum”) of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek Orthodox Christian community’s name for themselves (“Romaioi” [ref](East) Romans; Byzantines. There were solely Ottoman/Turkish-speaking Orthodox who called themselves Rum, and bilingual Konstantinoupolites still call themselves Rum in Turkish.[/ref]).

At the church-mosque, in one group, one person reminded another before they went in, ‘you are to take your shoes off [na vgaleis ta papoutsia sou]’. In another group, one person stood outside uncertain what they had to do to show respect until another, who was already inside in a shared-word and mime-based conversation with the caretaker, smilingly explained that all they had to do was ‘take off your shoes and come in [vgale ta papoutsia sou kai bes]’.

In yet another group, one person was in the process of taking their shoes off when another bitterly scolded them, ‘don’t be taking them off [mh vgazeis ta]’ – because that is only correct etiquette if the building is a mosque, not if it is (still) a church. Some people refused even to get off the bus to look at the converted building.

Church of the Virgin Mary, Mosque of Yaman Dede; Kayseri, Turkey
The Ottoman-Turkish church-mosque, Kayseri, Turkey

The caretaker pointed out a string of prayer beads hanging from a wire above us, then he and a man from the tour group grinned as they mimed out to each other a playful boy flinging his beads high into the air until they caught the wire – ‘chak!‘ – and swung around it. Studying the style of prayer beads, the caretaker and the tourist both thought the boy had been from the other community.

We all admired the Ottoman Christian architecture and (most, if not all of us) the sympathetic conversion (for example, the minimalist interpretation of a minaret). It was particularly pleasantly surprising because the church was converted into a mosque in 1925, just a couple of years after the last grotesque acts in a conflict that comprised states’ wars against each other, communities’ massacres of each other, and a religious nationalist parastate’s genocide of non-Turkish non-Muslim communities.

Yaman Dede Camii minaret, Kayseri, Turkey
View of the minaret of Yaman Dede Camii, Kayseri, Turkey

I hadn’t expected the following conversation, and even before it started there was already a jumble of Greek and Turkish in my head and mouth, so I can’t remember it word-for-word. Nonetheless, in the street, before we left, the Turkish-speaking Greek tour guide and I were told that Yaman Dede was Orthodox Christian, then he became Muslim; he converted to Islam, then he converted the church into a mosque.

The tour guide thanked the person who told us this, then with an apologetic smile that said “I’m sure you’ll understand”, the guide suggested, ‘don’t say that [to them] – I’ll explain it to them, when we’re back on the bus…’.

Ireland and the ‘vagaries of war’

There’s a somewhat long tirade by way of an introduction to this post on distance, perceptions from afar, and the current state of Ireland so, indulge, or bear with, me while I set the scene!

Writing in the Irish Times just before the visit of the queen of England to the Republic of Ireland in May, wherein, as we are not subjects of her majesty, we are not required to bow or curtsey, or capitalise the word ‘queen’ (I may have made that last bit up – or my Republican Grandmother did), Irish comedian Dara Ó’Briain notes that:

‘There is a joke that all Irish comics have a version of, but the most economic expression is from Andrew Maxwell. He would declare in an English comedy club “The Irish love the Muslims…” and after a long, long pause, “They’ve really taken the heat off us”.’

Ó’Briain’s point is that, in Britain, the Irish have ceased being identified a major ’terror threat’. We have been normalised in British society. The visit of the queen signals a further stabilisation of our relationship with our nearest neighbours and the culmination of a long and difficult peace process on our Island. Unfortunately no member of the public, other than some local celebrities (they’re always smaller than you thought, you  know) were allowed within 50km of her majesty, in case we’d do something embarrassing like keep our hands in our pockets or something! Our local media framed the visit as ‘the Nation growing up’, a sign of our ‘maturity’, and carefully sanitised the past.

(Photo: Whitehouse)

President Obama’s later visit, predicated on his (very) tenuous family links to a small village in County Offaly (see Moore Group’s blog here), took place over less than 24 hours, and copper fastened his vague Irish credentials, as well as providing US media outlets the golden opportunity to promulgate the great Irish clichés (drink) and document the new national stereotypes – our newly poor property developers and other Celtic Tiger grotesques (sorry, but I’m too stuffed with potatoes, and langered with porter to summon up any outrage). Inevitably, the local media for both visits were fawning and obsequious, and internationally the most memorable images presented were of a British queen politely ignoring a pint of Guinness, and an American President embracing one (and sinking it with gusto). Guinness, owned by the multinational company Diageo, had a great advertising opportunity and, after the guests had left, promptly announced 400 future layoffs. No mention or query during Obama’s visit about US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s apparent blocking of an IMF plan to allow Ireland to burn some of our bondholders, thus maintaining the financial burden on the country and adding greatly to our general misery and wretchedness – no, it was all hugging babies, our two countries being bound by affection, history and friendship…. Nice articulate, inspiring, bondage, nonetheless.

Meanwhile back in the US, Imagine Ireland is pitching Irish ‘Culture’, which according to their website ‘is the means by which most Americans now encounter Ireland’. Funded by the Irish Government, the project aims to connect with Irish-Americans (all 40 million of them – down mysteriously from 70m in the previous census [maybe I made that up too]) and other Americans (all 271,353,043 of them), by presenting a wide ranging programme of arts and cultural events and collaborations across the States.

‘Brand Ireland’ has clearly been in overdrive for the past month.

These events, and the associated marketing, are all part of a huge effort to repair our perceived international reputational damage as a result of our economic collapse, to change our tourism pitch from the overly expensive Celtic Tiger garish spa tourism of the early 21st century to ‘culture’ (archaeological sites, music and drink) and green tourism, and to present a new, positive face to the world. So, the main pitch of our tourism chiefs is that Ireland is a place of fun, stout and ‘the craic’, with green fields and archaeological sites featuring prominently in that marketing, depicting a country which is both rural and traditional. The Presidential and queenly visits provoked an all-pervasive ‘positive thinking’ rhetoric in both the new and old media and even infected the pubs (the cynics have only now in the past week begun to rear up again). In the end this might sell a few more pints of Guinness over the next few years and fill up our empty hotels (financed by ill-advised tax breaks for the ultra-rich in the noughties).

From the dizzying heights of the Celtic Tiger years, when we were ‘the envy of the world’, a shining light of economic openness, Ireland has now descended into economic freefall, and our cultural heritage sector has not escaped the collapse. The current best estimate by the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI) of numbers working in the profession is 350 – from a peak of 1700 in 2008. This may even be overestimated, as, anecdotally, we’re hearing of widespread unemployment nationwide, with people working only sporadically and others on short term or part time hours, a scenario reflected in my own business, which now employs 4, down from a peak of 18 four/five years ago.

It’s in this context that my attention was drawn to the recent AIA ball and its focus on Ireland. Part –funded by Imagine Ireland as an element of their great American Journey, the Gala was addressed by our cultural ambassador, Gabriel Byrne (of In Treatment and Bracken fame). The event seems to have been a great success and showcased our remarkable cultural heritage and stock of monuments with apparently excellent addresses by both Pat Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland and Gabriel Byrne; but I was surprised by a small paragraph describing how some of the proceeds from the Gala were to be used:

Each year hundreds of irreplaceable archaeological sites are destroyed by unrestrained development, looting, the vagaries of war, and environmental changes.  With the help of gala attendees, we are able to preserve these sites for the future.

During the Gala, guests had the special opportunity to  support the AIA’s efforts to preserve Irish cultural heritage—a portion of the proceeds from the Gala auction will be used to directly support archaeological sites in Ireland…

This may be a case of a simple cut and paste on the part of an AIA website editor. However, it did elicit a brief stir on twitter with a few Irish archaeological tweeters noting the tone and import of the paragraph, a paragraph which was later repeated in the introduction to a new AIA Irish Archaeological Heritage Google Earth skin announced here. As Charles Mount points out in his blog ‘I hope this misplaced rhetoric won’t discourage any visitors to Ireland’. Further to Charles’ blog post the section was removed from the Google Earth announcement on the AIA site (although it still appears on the ‘Saving Irish Sites‘ section of the website).

With regards to ‘the vagaries of war’ mentioned therein, it should be pointed out that the conflict in Ireland is a sensitive subject and we have gone through a long and difficult peace process, building on the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Ireland is now one of the safest places in the world (consistently ranking in or around the world’s top ten safest and most peaceful places).

We haven’t had war in the Republic for 90 years (both my Grandfathers were locked up for that one – but that’s another story), we have one of the lowest murder rates in the world, no one carries a gun, and, shure, we’re half stupefied with de demon drink most of the time, so, ‘vagaries of war’ – not a threat to our cultural heritage or prospective visitors…

As to unrestrained development: Well, the recklessness of our bankers and the hubris of our property developers, aided by ineffectual government, political clientelism, the general global collapse and our innate cute-hoorism (see here and here) has put the kibosh (which word some would say is derived from the Irish word Cabáiste meaning ‘cabbage’, or caidhp (an) bháis meaning ‘cap of death’) on that.

Looting in Ireland has not been a huge problem, metal detectorists require a licence to prospect in the vicinity of archaeological sites, and our legislation, described by someone as ‘the most draconian’ in the world  ensures strong protection for our archaeological sites. In saying that, there was one disturbing recent incident of looting of a WW1 Uboat in Cork.

And, ‘environmental changes’; well apart from coastal erosion, sea level rise and other climatic processes, not a great problem…

No, the most pressing threat to Irish archaeology is none of the above… it is a combination of decreased funding, cut throat competition in an era of much reduced developer funded work, growing unemployment, emigration and the resultant brain drain. Experienced archaeological field workers face the choice of retraining, pursuing a new career path or leaving the country. Those who remain (and are lucky enough to have a job) face a different challenge – crap conditions and pay….   a reversion to the bad old days when archaeology was seen as a ‘vocation’ (this word is creeping back into the Irish archaeological lexicon and should be taken as code for badly paid, crap conditions), a job you do for the ‘love of it’. From the anecdotal evidence this is becoming a reality, with indications that those who remain in employment at the lower grades are being paid barely above the minimum wage (which itself has been reduced, but will apparently be raised again shortly).

Another problem is dissemination of all the data from the past few years. The last 20 years have resulted in an unprecedented number of discoveries and a wealth of new information on Irish archaeology, the road and house building boom producing unequalled amounts of data, but this is so far largely hidden in technical reports and unpublished material archived in formal Department locations. Although state agencies such as the NRA (National Roads Authority, nothing to do with guns) are busy publishing the results of the road projects, and some of the surviving consultancies are getting their data out (witness eachtra’s exemplary Journal and our own humble blog), there’s still a danger that much of this information will get lost along the way, if the excavators leave Ireland or consultancies shut down or simply no longer have the resources.

I’ve a much longer list of the problems and dangers for Irish archaeology in my head, but I won’t go into them here. Anyone who wants to read more on the great challenges and apparent opportunities, just click here for a discussion document on the Archaeological Profession in Ireland, arising from a recent seminar facilitated by the Irish Heritage Council.

Doubtless there are dangers to our cultural heritage, but certainly not from the vagaries of war, nor from looting or unrestrained development (perhaps from environmental changes).

Irish commercial archaeology has come a long way, and our knowledge of our past is being transformed but right now we’re busy taking stock of where we are and where we’re going, in terms of our society at large and also in terms of our cultural heritage. Tourism and our well preserved and presentable cultural heritage is an integral part of our future sustainable survival and perceptions from distant markets are important to that future. Our nations story of progress to independence, through poverty and emigration, sudden wealth and subsequent collapse, with the prospect of lasting unity and peace has not been untroubled, but, despite my earlier cynical tone, that trouble is largely behind us, and we wholeheartedly welcome all our visitors…  and they can rest assured that we won’t hurt them.

And as a reward for getting all the way to the end, please stand for Ireland’s alternative national anthem…

[yt video=UVj7cwnFtYI]Ireland Ireland Duckworth Lewis Method[/yt]