Archives for category: PhD Research

I moved into a new (old) house in Crossgates (or Cross Gates – no-one can decide which is correct) three weeks ago. As an archaeologist, I regard a house as an archaeological project, and I have spent many a midnight hour researching where I’ve lived and even more time sifting the earth in various gardens. What I found in my last home can be seen on my Fires of Prometheus web pages.

But now I have a new archaeological site to explore. The house was built in 1900, so just scrapes into being Victorian, and was constructed on what had been open fields. The other day I began work in the garden, digging an area that had been covered with pebbles, gravel and a sheet of polythene and which is to become my vegetable patch.

At first all I found were earthworms, grumpy at being disturbed,  couch grass roots and a golf tee. Not very exciting. But (typically) when I had almost finished for the day, I found a bisque doll’s arm.

doll_arm_1aJust under four centimetres long, the arm would have been sewn, along with the head and other limbs, to a fabric, stuffed body. These ceramic artefacts are forming an important element of my PhD research, so I was quietly thrilled to have discovered one in my own back yard!

I’m going to blog about my experiences as I explore my home archaeologically. I’m going to call my blog, rather unimaginatively, Place, and I’ll put a link here as soon as it’s live.

It’s not often I read a non-fiction book straight through, but I’ve just demolished my copy of Bill Brown’s 2003 A Sense of Things, The Object Matter of American Literature, which now sprouts a forest of page-markers. The book has given me lots to think about, lit some light-bulbs, sent me scurrying after other references, got me to download a couple of nineteenth century pdfs (ah the joys of technology…to be able to sit in one’s sick-bed, accessing 150-year-old volumes in US university libraries).

I was already exploring Mark Twain’s writings about bric-a-brac, but Brown has alerted me to others, including Henry James, who has provided me with lots of interest. Brown points out that although some of James’ characters share a hatred of bric-a-brac, they also demonstrate that even “hideous objects could be loved.” As Brown writes: “…we use physical objects to arouse and organize our affection.” Yes!

Now I’m several chapters into Things, which Brown edited in 2004. This of course is more of a dipping-into read, but still valuable.

I sat at the CHAT conference (see last post) listening and letting little bubbles of thought pop in my over-stimulated brain.

Here are a few notes:

Reverse engineering in archaeology (Gabriel Moshenska). I realised that no-one will ever “do” archaeology in the way we did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The organisations have changed, there has been a degree of innovation (though not as much as you might expect), some techniques have evolved, new technologies have been added, and health and safety is far more developed. I think we probably had more adventures in the early days (“the heroic age of archaeology”) though…

You can’t take the archaeologist out of the process.

The material world is changing minute by minute – how can archaeology deal with this?

We are surveying the past in the present.

Critical code studies (Ross Wilson) and the archaeology of the Internet.

The archaeology of illicit and illegal activities (Gabriella Soto). When a discarded backpack might be evidence of a life/death struggle.

Overburden (Craig Cessford). The importance of the surface.

When people are highly suspicious of archaeologists (Suzanne Lilley) and when you might be damned for publishing!

Agressive v “nice” roundabouts (Matt Edgeworth). Non-places, taken-for-granted things. The fascination of the familiar. Breaking rules (archaeological and societal).

Exploring hinterlands by just “wandering about (Paul Graves-Brown). The importance of talking to people.

Prague summer villas look as if constructed from children’s building blocks (Vaclav Matousek).

The archaeology of “hopelessness” (Quintin Lewis) and the necessity of looking up (above the shopfronts) as well as down. The archaeological importance of friendly taxi-drivers!

Archaeology as reportage (Rob Maxwell).

The Archaeology of Occupy. Marjolin Kok and Elles Besselsen mull over the materiality of anti-materialists.

Appropriating the mass-produced object (that is an important concept for me!) Making matter speak.

Digitally excavating photographs and postcards. Using postcards as evidence of past values (Sian Jones)

The archaeology and transformation (and theft) of concrete slabs (Steven Leech and Ruth Colton).

The end time and archaeology (Donnelly Hayde). Perhaps we won’t last long enough to finish our PhDs?

Getting modern objects recognised as important by the powers-that-be. Why does the past end in 1700? (Hilary Orange).

Turning one’s nose up at privies, and a potty on the mantelpiece (Paul Mullins).

A discovery – the Czech “Tramping Movement”. Alberta, Manitoba, cowboys and potlach in the Czech forest. (Tomas Hirt and James Symonds).

The sound of rust (Ron Wright).

Came across a thought-provoking statement (by design academic Kenneth Fitzgerald) today:

“If you want to have a career, you need to create your own buzz.”

I reflected on this, and concluded that for me it is true not only of creating a career (which is what, I think, Fitzgerald was writing about), but of life in general.

There are people who one notices, who stand out, who one is drawn to, to whom one listens. They may not be geniuses, they may not possess a cupboard-full of qualifications, their work may not be earth-shatteringly revolutionary, they may not be physically stunning, but they are interesting and different and successful.

There is a buzz about them

I think it’s almost like the buzz you feel near a highly electrically-charged object, a slight atmospheric crackling, a sense of energy that almost makes your hair stand on end.

Of course this “buzz” is indefinable, despite being obvious when you experience it, because it varies markedly from individual to individual. You can’t do a class in buzz! Yet I also believe that it isn’t just something one is simply born with. I’ve seen people develop (either through hard work or through personal growth) a buzz over time, sometimes gradually, sometimes overnight.

That’s something worth adding to my “to do” list!.

W S Gilbert wrote, in his libretto for Ruddigore:

“If you wish in this world to advance,
Your merits you’re bound to enhance;
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or trust me, you haven’t a chance.”

Plenty of people blow their own trumpet but nevertheless fail miserably to impress. I think someone with buzz has almost certainly stirred it and stumped it, but they don’t need the trumpet-blowing!

Our post-lecture discussion of the everyday led, circuitously, to everyday images. At one point I mentioned my sense of loss resulting from the disappearance, in the midst of one of life’s traumatic upheavals, of most of my collection of 35mm colour transparencies, which dated back as far as my teens and included my undergraduate days, much of my archaeology career, a handful of exes, some travels and much besides.

I have clear memories of many of the images on those transparencies, memories which of course include not only the “frozen moment” captured on Agfacolor or Ektachrome but different snatches of time either side of that fossilised 60th of a second at f8. Are those memories different to the image? Better than the image? An extension of the image? Or are they somehow lessened by the lack of something tangible to which to anchor them?

Bob told of a photograph, an only print now destroyed, of his father holding him when he was a child. He feels that his memory of the image is so strong and clear that he doesn’t need the snapshot to recall it and the importance of what it depicted.

Yet I, despite being able to describe to you many of those lost-for-ever photographs, nevertheless continue to mourn their destruction. Perhaps as an over-reaction I now keep my last 20 years-worth of photographic negatives in a safety deposit box, and back up my digital images not just once but thrice, with one hard drive locked away in the same deposit box!

The importance of the physicality of photographs is surely demonstrated by people’s defacement of them, by the almost violent excision of a no-longer-loved one, the scratching or obliteration of a despised face, the almost-ritual tearing up of  photographs of an ended relationship, the turning of a photograph to the wall…

This ramble is all very shallow, and I know many have thought hard and written copiously about what photography is and does. So I have to look much more deeply into the relationship between memory and memento, and remembered and tangible images, for the three-dimensional objects I am researching were often called “images” in the nineteenth century. They were also referred to as “figures,” echoing perhaps the use of the word to describe two-dimensional book illustrations as well as three dimensional human bodies.

I sat yesterday evening in that peculiar space that is Manchester Metropolitan University Library, pecking at my iPad ( as I do this I feel I resemble a pair of pigeons nodding over breadcrumbs).

In MMU library one studies against a background of the roaring white-noisiness of air conditioning, which when it abruptly ceases at 6:30, makes someone giggle with surprise. In the more distant background, the lifts repeatedly announce “Second Floor!” and “Doors Closing!” in a strict voice that reminds me uncomfortably of Mrs Thatcher. Here and there a phone vibrates on a tabletop, as a nod to the challenging concept of “quiet study,” but the person who picks it up and rushes for the foyer inevitably yells “Hallo” before they reach the door.

Occasionally the concept of quietude is misunderstood. Only an occasional one-sided telephone conversation is brazenly carried out in the room. However it’s amazing how annoying whispered conversations can be, mostly because one is caught within the paradox of not wanting to listen but on the other hand instinctively straining to make out what is being said.

Apparently hard-of-hearing library staff thump past, their walkie-talkies scolding at their hips, and proceed noisily to crash books onto sorting racks, or rustle in the depths of the recycling bins, or animatedly discuss the weather with a colleague. Interesting that both supermarket and library shelf-stackers are constantly asking each other “When are you on (or off) next?”

Our library work-surfaces are designed, it seems, for limbo dancers. To plug a laptop power supply into the nearest-available socket, one has first to poke the plug through a hairy-edged slot at the back of the desktop, then clamber beneath the desk to insert the plug into a socket hidden deep under its surface. Surely this must be breaking a dozen Health and Safety rules? Will I be able to sue for an industrial accident when I strain my back, split my trousers or bang my head?

Meanwhile, the overhead lights over the book stacks are controlled by motion sensors, and every now and then, they will eerily turn themselves off, only to go through the tedium of turning themselves on again when the next student plunges into the gloom.

I stand up to leave and find I now have at least a dozen zip fasteners to negotiate, each one echoing around the room, or so it feels. I stumble out thankfully into the rushing torrent of noise that is Oxford Road!

As a postgraduate researcher it is of course up to me to organise my academic life. However there is one day a week, Wednesday, when good stuff happens at MIRIAD. That’s the day when I am pretty well guaranteed to bump into most, if not all, of my fellow research students. So I am determined to be there.

The trouble is, people keep scheduling interesting and tantalising events that clash, and I have yet to develop the skill of being in two places at once. This, combined with my new-boyish wish to take part in as much as possible, is frustrating. Perhaps the powers-that-be haven’t heard of shared calendars…

The high: This morning I have the slightly swollen lips of a prize-fighter. However I’ve not been involved in any acts of violence – the very opposite. Yesterday, for five hours, I played first oboe in Manchester’s Cameo Orchestra as we rehearsed (for fun) Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Strangely, this was the first time I’d played this familar work, and it was great fun, despite a couple of minor lapses in concentration. I’ve always adhered to the musical principal that if you are going to play a wrong note, miss an entry or come in at the wrong place, one should do it with aplomb. Perhaps that is because playing the oboe, not a retiring instrument, means that everyone is going to hear whatever you do anyway. But the oboe can be hard work, hence my morning pout.

The low: Because I’m now pretty-well based in Manchester I’ve had to give up my much-loved allotment at Whitemoor, in Nottingham. Last week I handed it over to Louise, who is taking it over. Although I’d only worked the allotment for some six years (one of my fellow gardeners has been cultivating his plot for 50 years), it nevertheless involved a lot of hard work, successes and failures, as well as, of course, providing plenty of wonderful organic produce, despite competition from ravenous hordes of slugs, snails, whitefly, aphids, wireworms and pigeons. The plot sprouted a hearty jungle of weeds as soon as my back was turned, and bricks and lumps of concrete turned up like dragons’ teeth, but it was great fun, great exercise, and being on the allotment, whatever the time of year or whatever the weather, was a restorative experience. I shall miss it a lot, and already look forward to growing food again in the future.

The jolt: I learned this morning that a paper has just been published by a couple of authors well known to me that appears at first glance to preempt a significant chunk of my proposed PhD research. Hey, I’m just three weeks into my three years and someone is already chewing at my topic! I raced to download the paper, and gobbled up its 16 pages. It’s an interesting,  well-researched and well-written paper, and yes, I found some overlaps, commonalities and challenges (it even cites my MA dissertation). But I also found a number of references and sources I hadn’t yet discovered (thank you), support for several of my ideas and approaches (phew!) and some very useful pointers.

Perhaps I am experiencing for the first time something that may be familiar to all researchers – the discovery that others are exploring the same areas of scholarship, and the attendant anxiety that they might reach the buried treasure first! The paper is only about 2,000 words long, and when I calmed down I recognised that it is essentially a brief and useful introduction to just some of the ideas that I shall be covering and on which I’ll be expanding somewhere in my 80,000 words. I’ll be able to cite it, make use of the information and hopefully collaborate with its authors on future research and publications. Takes deep breaths…

Still, it woke me up, this Monday morning!

My days in Manchester are getting more crowded with research-related activities, the best of which involve my fellow-students. It is fascinating how just listening to others explain their projects, their approaches, their writing goals, their interests, their problems and their achievements creates a chain reaction of thoughts and ideas in my own grey matter. Although some enjoy the freedom and peace of studying alone, I find I need this stream of seemingly-random stimuli.

In Writing Group the other day we briefly talked of different preferences for environments in which to write. I get more ideas sitting for a couple of hours in a quiet pub with a notebook on my knee and pint or two of beer nearby than I would in a whole day trapped in my study. Of course, turning those notebook scribbles, bullet lists and mind maps into something more concrete requires me to be glued to my desk. But this way I avoid empty page syndrome, and it seems that for some people, like me, the brain has to be almost tricked into creativity.

Today, three of us who have in common a research interest in the nineteenth century met to launch a study group. It was a small but significant step, and for me could be a way to avoid clutching my work protectively to myself as if it were a swaddled baby. Good for me…

At the moment I am commuting between Nottingham and Manchester at least once a week. Although this is inconvenient and expensive, it does have the advantage that I am forced to sit and read for a minimum of four hours a week! It’s a good way of devouring those pesky one-week-loan library books.

But the reading has to stop while the train rattles along the Hope valley through the Pennines and I drink in the passing landscape, which is splendid even on days when the clouds crouch low on the hilltops. We’ve ambled along many of the muddy footpaths that either transect the railway or that can be seen snaking across fields and sneaking along hedgerows. I look forward to the next hike…