In December I was lucky enough to speak at two conferences, which were both very rewarding, although very different.
I kicked things off at the beginning of the month with the London Postgraduate Conference on the Ancient Near East, held at the British Museum. This was a chance for postgraduates and postdocs to talk about their research, and of the two conferences had the narrower thematic focus. That said, the Ancient Near East is still incredibly broad, so we were treated to a very diverse set of papers on everything from swimming pools in Roman Palestine to rock inscriptions by Arabian nomads. And, of course, a lot of Mesopotamia.
This was the first chance I’ve had to present my research in a while, so it was useful to be able to get some of my thoughts in a sort of order and see what people made of them. I spoke about the question of social diversity in who wrote in Ugarit, something I spent a lot of last year thinking about – what evidence for differences in gender, social status or geographical origin do we have in writing at Ugarit, and can we see any differences between the Akkadian and Ugaritic traditions? Ultimately, there aren’t any easy answers here that I can offer in a short summary like this. It’s a very tricky area and what evidence there is is very ambiguous. That said, despite the need for caution, I think we can draw some tentative conclusions which point to writing being quite restricted in Ugarit – more so than in some other parts of the Near East. I’ll have to think more about what’s going on here, and why this might be.
The LPCANE conference also gave me the chance to get to the British Museum’s Aššurbanipal exhibition, which I’ve already written about here. It’s still on for a little longer and I encourage you to try and get to it before it closes. Finally, it was very nice to meet other people working on the Near East – some old friends and others I hadn’t met before – during a very enjoyable and relaxed couple of days.
Just before Christmas I went to my second conference, the much bigger TAG Deva – the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group jamboree, held this year in Chester. Although I’m partial to a bit of archaeological theory when the mood takes me, my time at this conference ended up being much more about engagement, community, folklore and outreach – the main theme across all the sessions I attended being the place of archaeology in wider society. It ended up being a tremendously interesting and inspiring few days, with a great many insights for how we do research and engage with groups outside academia, especially those who feel a connection or claim on the archaeology we’re studying. As this blog testifies, we’re really interested in these kind of questions at CREWS, so even though there was nothing about writing or even much about the ancient Mediterranean, it turned out to be much more relevant to my everyday work than I expected.
What actually attracted me to the conference in the first place was the session I was speaking at, entitled ‘Haunt this Place: Fantasy, Archaeology, and the Ghosts of the Land’. I’ve been thinking a bit about landscapes and the haunting presence of absent features for Ugarit lately, but I won’t lie: I was mainly in this for the ghost stories, hauntings and discussions of people like MR James and Alan Garner. It will surprise precisely no regular readers of my posts here or on my own blog to learn that I’m a bit of a sucker for a bit of folk horror, weird fiction or antiquarian ghost story. Despite all this, I took a slightly different tack to everyone else in the session and spoke about alien megastructures in the hard science fiction of the 1970s. This might seem a bit of a push for a session on hauntings, and even more so for a theoretical archaeology conference, but there’s actually a lot more in common between these different genres than you might expect. I’ve summarised my paper in more detail in a post on my own blog, but the short version is that these stories present these alien structures as ancient alien artefacts/landscapes/machines that must be explored and their secrets uncovered, all the while ‘haunted’ by the absent (but inevitably in some sense still all-too-present) alien constructors. In other words, they’re fundamentally archaeological, and there’s a surprising amount of overlap in structure and theme with the more fantastical archaeological horrors of James or Lovecraft, which in turn tells us a lot about how archaeology was engaged with in this period by even very scientifically-inclined writers outside the discipline.
But enough about my paper – actually, it was far more interesting to hear all the other contributions, which prompted me to think in new ways about how spaces are contested, claimed and interpreted, and the way folklore has always intertwined with ‘proper’ archaeology, from the surprising connections between MR James and aerial photography to modern myth-making and emerging ritual at Southwark’s Cross Bones Graveyard. The papers were recorded and will hopefully be made available online. I’ll try and remember to post a link to them here once they are.
A lot of these themes were paralleled in the other sessions I attended – one on creativity and art archaeology, and one on the use of comics for community engagement. I didn’t really know what to expect from the session on art, but since writing was an artisanal skill in the societies we study, I hoped it would be relevant. Indeed it was but not really in the way I expected. Rather than focusing on ancient artistic practices or art history, it was much more concerned with how contemporary artistic practice can be incorporated into archaeological work for new insights and perspectives, and to encourage modern communities – and indeed archaeologists themselves – to engage with archaeological material in new and thoughtful ways. This included everything from archaeological practice as performance art to collaborations between artists and archaeologists on a variety of projects and even an entire 15-minute presentation delivered in verse. I’d consider myself creative and interested in craft, and while I wouldn’t really self-identify as an artist, I have for a long time been interested in how we can present archaeological material in more interesting and engaging ways than the traditional, often dry reports and monographs – even if that’s just a stylistic flourish in the illustrations or attention paid to the style and readability of the text. So this gave me a lot to think about.
Finally, there was the session on comics. For a self-admitted geek I’ve always had a bit of a blind spot for comics, never really getting into them in the same way as a lot of other people seem to. But that’s more a lack of interest in the superhero genre than any real dislike for the medium itself. As a kid, my main comics fare was slightly old European stuff – Asterix, Tintin and various reprinted 1960s Gerry Anderson and Doctor Who strips. So this session was a valuable reminder of some of the other things comics can be, and especially how the medium can be harnessed for archaeological outreach, whether in formal school resources or community-focused local history projects. We’ve been thinking for a while in the CREWS Project about different ways we can present our research to wider audiences, and different kinds of resources we might be able to create, and this was an excellent prompt to ideas and approaches – not necessarily just with comics either, but the kinds of questions, considerations and strategies that are useful to any attempt to help people outside academia understand, engage with and participate in research into their pasts.
For an event I went to largely because I wanted to attend one session that coincided with my own interests in ways that didn’t seem to directly coincide with my research, this conference ended up being incredibly exciting and inspiring, opening up new pathways and prompting new ways of working. It really underlined the value of taking a step back and looking outside what seems to directly relate, because you never know what might turn out to be relevant to things you didn’t even know you wanted to do.
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)