Preggo with Pliny: Part II

Staring down the barrel of the 3rd trimester, I thought it was a good time to revisit Pliny’s advice to pregnant women. I’m feeling pretty good, and felt like a total fraud at TAG when packed sessions would ripple in order to give me a seat. Really, I’m probably more comfortable on the floor.

Anyway, what does Pliny say about the latter part of pregnancy? Well, he identifies the 8th month as the second of his most dangerous points in the pregnancy. A reminder: Pliny means what we would describe as 7 months pregnant: incidentally, exactly how pregnant I am right now. So why would Pliny observe a spike in maternal deaths at this point? The language he uses is interesting here, (Natural History 7: 4), in that it is made clear that both mother and child do not survive in these cases: “abortion during this period is fatal.”

I wondered if this was a reflection of pre-eclampsia. This nasty condition is characterised by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, swelling of the body especially the feet, problems with vision, headaches and pain below the ribs. It progresses, without effective treatment, to full-blown eclampsia: seizures that end in death. Every midwife appointment I have includes checks on my urine and blood pressure, to ensure any problems are spotted early. The only cure is for the pregnancy to end, with the expulsion of the foetus: a foetus unlikely to survive in Pliny’s 8th month, but with better prospects closer to full term delivery. He lists examples of rare babies that did survive premature delivery at this point, but they are very much the exception. The death of the mother during full-term birth, and the death of a premature infant were presumably more common occurrences.

Of course, this is all HIGHLY speculative stuff. But considering that pre-eclampsia is diagnosed in 5% of modern pregnancies*, and that Hippocrates centuries earlier had observed the occurrence of headache and fatal convulsions in late pregnancy, I wonder if this condition is partly responsible for the danger zone that Pliny observed.

Very cheerful. I’ll hopefully be back with more helpful pointers from Pliny in the run-up to labour. Spoiler: it involves hyena feet as pain relief. And I thought natal hypnotherapy was alternative.

PS. I have a midwife appointment this week, fingers crossed for a good urine test and low blood pressure.

*Abalos, E; Cuesta, C; Grosso, AL; Chou, D; Say, L (September 2013). “Global and regional estimates of preeclampsia and eclampsia: a systematic review.”. European journal of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology. 170 (1): 1–7.

Matteo Renzi, Messed up DNA, and Mansplaining

Oh, what a week it’s been. And it’s only bloody Wednesday. 2016’s latest political drama has been the results of a referendum in Italy, which took place on Sunday. The motion for the referendum, focused on political reform, was firmly rejected by the voting public, and as a result the Italian technocrat Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has resigned. Then this enjoyable little article popped up on Monday, exposing a company which presents people with neat little stories about their ancestors based on their DNA. Except the stories are total crap, or so general as to be pretty crappily related to the customers involved. And then, Brexiteer Arron Banks mansplained to Professor Mary Beard about the Fall of Rome on the basis that he’d seen Gladiator and done Romans at school. (here’s her take on it)

So what links these three little items together, and what are they doing here? Well, I’d argue that all three incidents are little flashpoints at which self-identification and the past collide.And guess what, I can even drag the Etruscans into this. I did promise in my last post the next one would include my favourite pre-Roman Italians (sorry Samnium- it was close).

Let’s start with Renzi. One of the major issues in the Italian referendum was the centralisation of power, and the reduction of regional control over decision making and spending. Renzi argued that this was essential to taming the country’s finances and untangling the political process to enable fast and effective change. The problem is that despite delighted celebrations in 2014 for the 150th anniversary of the modern Italian state, regionalism remains central to modern Italian identity. Indeed, often the city or town is the unit of belonging, the first allegiance of citizens. 150 years is nothing, compared to the centuries of city-states, shifting allegiances and close-knit relationships that have origins that pre-date the Roman conquest of Italia, that continued through the tumult of the early medieval period and configured the Renaissance. This is a gross simplification (hey, it’s a blog and to really understand you need an explanation from a real Italian not just an interested observer) and I’m not going to argue that the Etruscan League is responsible for a 2016 referendum result, but I suspect that the idea of alienating locally held powers was anathema to a large section of the population who still identify with the places where they live ahead of a modern nation state.Add in the disturbing results of central power during the Fascist period and you can perfectly well see why the result went the way it did. History and self-identity did for Renzi.

Now to DNA. I must admit, I rather enjoyed the stereotypical illustrations and tired ideas that accompanied the DNA reports described by Buzzfeed. Then I gave myself a mental slap. The Germanic warriors represented were not so funny when they ended up co-opted into Nazi archaeology, via the writings of Gustav Kossina. Genetics and archaeology both have a dangerous edge here. What the DNA company are doing is selling a personalised version of the past that people want to believe in. They want to be able to identify with particular kinds of ancestors. This is something I’ve encountered in Etruscan archaeology too. It started long before DNA analysis, at the same time as Kossina was working. The idea that the Etruscans were Italians, not immigrants as described by Herodotus, fitted far better with the narrative of a glorious past promoted by the Fascist state. The Etruscan origins argument is recast to fit the political mood, a phenomenon I trace in the second chapter of my new book.

Adding DNA to the mix has only made things more explosive: in one study, samples were taken from the inhabitants of 3 towns: Volterra, Casentino, and Murlo (where I dug and still return to). The idea was that these towns might preserve Etruscan DNA, and the residents were (based on talking to people, predominantly older people, in Murlo) DELIGHTED at this idea. They were hugely excited to be potentially descended from Etruscans, and incorporated this into their sense of self-identity. A later study returned to the results and compared them with remains of actual dead Etruscans*- and found no links between the inhabitants of Murlo and the skeletal remains they worked on. But by then, the links were made, the imaginations had been fired, people were deeply pleased by the idea of their Etruscan ancestors. To use an in-vogue phrase, the real results of the study were “post-factual.” People believed they were descended from the Etruscans already, and their being asked for DNA testing confirmed this, regardless of any links with archaeological material.

So now we end up with Arron Banks and mansplaining to a Roman historian, indeed, perhaps the best known Roman historian. Post factual has been the word of the year, thrown around with fake news and slagging off experts. The Etruscan DNA example was light-hearted (ish), the Italian referendum result far more serious. The idea that immigration caused the Roman Empire to fall and should be taken as a warning from history is poisonous on a whole other level, reminiscent of the warped archaeology of Kossina and its eventual role in genocide. But the point is, like the recipients of the DNA “bollocks”, like the people who were told they might be descended from Etruscans, and to some extent like the Italians who voted “no,” Banks has incorporated this interpretation of the past into his identity. He doesn’t care about evidence or nuance: it’s become part of who he is and how he defines himself. He couldn’t do anything else in the face of Professor Beard’s knowledge, he couldn’t undo the weaving of this factoid into his sense of self.

History, archaeology, and self-identity. A dangerous cocktail in a post-factual world. What the hell will happen next year?

*Please do read this later restudy. It’s S. Ghirotto et al, Origins and evolution of the Etruscans’ mtDNA. PloS One, 8l (2013). It’s open access and excellent.

For Future Reference, Conference Organisers

I’ve been trying not to write this blog post for about a month, but sod it. I’m doing it. Because this morning folks on Twitter were happily retweeting one of archaeology’s biggest conferences stating that childcare was available on site during the conference. Hurrah for inclusivity, let the parents roar, was the tone of the approving RTs.

But actually, for future reference, conference organisers:

  1. Childcare on a different campus (this event is being held at my alma mater, so I know- I would be amazed if the conference isn’t on one campus where the archaeology building is, at least a 10-15 minute walk from the nursery) isn’t on site. This is not a 2 minute nip out of my session, breastfeed or check in with my child and go back. That’s fine, but don’t say it is on site when it’s not. You will have stressed out parents to deal with in the long run.
  2. Childcare that we can only organise less than a month before due to your late deadlines and correspondingly late session details isn’t exactly reassuring. If you were attending all three days (and hence spending your ££s on accomodation, meals and the full whack of childcare) then you could book early. But if you were thinking of one day, it was impossible to book in until almost the last minute. This leads me to…
  3. How much spare capacity do the Early Years care providers have? This conference is over three weekdays, not the weekend when many conferences run and extra provision is available. So a last minute rush a month prior to the conference, with a wide range of age groups (all with different staff ratio requirements) is not helpful to your childcare team either. Do they put on extra staff? They have to. So my child is with new staff in a new place, if I can get them in. Super.
  4. Surprise surprise, that’s not a hugely appealing option. So my husband has booked a day off work on the middle day, and he’s having our girl. I believe they are going to the zoo. I wanted to submit abstracts for a couple of sessions, but knowing this was the scenario, I felt I could not do this and then pull out. Either way, my career loses. LUCKILY one session I really wanted to go to on the final day is going to be live streamed. This, more than anything else, really helps conference-going parents. Because…
  5. IT ALL COSTS MONEY. And unnecessary money at that. There’s no One Day Rate this year, so me going to this conference means paying full whack. As an unwaged person, I get a lower rate, but it’s still pretty substantial for a single day. It’s more than said zoo’s annual pass. And I think its substantial- me, a very middle class relatively well off woman. Checking my mofo’ing privilege here, if I’m moaning about this, there will be other people who simply cannot afford it. They cannot go. And they certainly cannot afford to go for 3 days, get their partner to have the kid(s) or pay for childcare ON TOP, and pay out for a B and B, let alone a hotel. At least with livestreaming you can watch it back later for free.

So please, while I have the utmost sympathy for the person running the TAG Twitter, and the poor souls running around organising the thing (been there…) can we keep fighting for improvements in access for parents rather than celebrating the bare minimum of provision? Here are some straightforward solutions:

  1. Be upfront about the distance parents will be from their child.
  2. Early deadlines, early announcements, early booking.
  3. A ONE DAY RATE.

Not difficult.

Normal Etruscan services will resume shortly.

 

Timelines

are strange beasts.

 

In many ways, they are an absolute staple of history and archaeology writing, from the very first time you start to scrawl about the past in primary school. They grace rulers and classroom walls, depicting the linear march of events. They are the bald, raw, aspect of things-that-happened-long ago.

In my old position in archaeological travel, we provided guests with sets of “field notes,” each with a timeline for the relevant periods explored or countries visited on the tour. Yet before that, I used up good PhD space criticising periodisation, and arguing that putting labels on chunks of the past was unhelpful.

Now, I’ve come to the point of compiling my own timeline for my new popular book on the Etruscans (publication date tentatively next October; Etruscan death demon themed launch party planning commenced). The full text has been sorted for a while, but the publishers have asked for a timeline for clarity as part of the front matter. Fair enough.

The exercise, however, has made me realise just how subjective timelines are. What do you include, and what do you leave out? It’s made me confront my conflicted views on textual sources and their application to the Etruscan world: do I want to put in the date that Herodotus thought his exiled Lydians showed up in Italy? What does that say about what I believe?

While I wrestle with this, you might enjoy a more lighthearted approach. With tumultuous events happening in the world, what funny or unusual things would you put on a timeline of the historical period you are interested in? I mean, I’d like to put in “most poorly executed Etruscan red-figure vase made.” And maybe, “Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli stops for a spot of lunch at Murlo.”

Go on. It’s better than reading the news.

Wooooh… scary

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Charun looks happy at least. Image by me, object belongs to the Soprintendenza per i beni cultural Etruria Meridionale.

I was going to write a post about the variety of cool Etruscan death demons and provide some snappy fancy dress advice for each one. Charun: wander around with a huge inflatable hammer. Vanth: channel Jodie Marsh with the belt bra look. That snake dude from the Tomb of the Blue Demons- get some serpents and a blue morph suit.

But instead, I’m going to blog about something that I think is much more frightening. Last week I gave a lecture at the Accordia Research Institute, part of UCL. I wanted to talk about the public archaeology of pre-Roman Italy, and I hope I managed to keep things structured and reasoned and not too rant-like. The rant risk factor arose from how worried, angry and afraid I am of a certain political mood, and a certain academic complacency.

In the week before I gave the talk, A-level archaeology, art history and classical civilisation were scrapped in the UK by the exam board, due to (in large part) lack of interest. Anthropology got the boot last year. How long can it be until these subjects, particularly archaeology with its horrendously low starting wages, begin to be phased out from universities too? Now, a lot of people were inclined to put the blame for this on ex-education minister Michael Gove, who had emphasised the importance of “real, hard” subjects. Gove himself (give the man his due) said he never meant THESE subjects, but guess what, unintended consequences bite like an Etruscan wolf demon.

Actually, it’s another Gove thing that has me more worried. He’s given voice to something I do feel is a wider problem- the general disenchantment with people that know stuff. His disdain for “experts” in the lead up to the Brexit vote should be regarded as a warning to anyone who has worked their tits off to acquire specialist knowledge. It’s not just a British thing, either. I identified in my lecture the parallels between Brexiteer philosophy and the Movimento 5 Stelle, the anti-establishment Italian political party to which the mayors of Rome and Turin belong. How long, I asked, would it be before these anti-expert views began to undermine people working in cultural heritage?

Erm, about a week. I don’t like to say I told you so, but the resignation* of the director of the Turin Museum Foundation, Patrizia Asproni, after a sustained campaign for her to quit led by the city’s 5*M mayor, makes me say I told you so. The Museum staff wanted to focus on big exhibitions that would bring new visitors to the city- the mayor’s office wanted more for local citizens. When a major sponsor dropped out of one of those planned major exhibitions, the mayor leapt gleefully upon a chance to get rid of a pesky cultural expert. Who was working for free- not even costing the museum money. How much more vulnerable will paid “experts” be to dismissal and bullying? In Italy and in the UK. Let alone in a Trump-led US, Uni forbid.

I don’t know, but predicting this particular aspect of the archaeological future is a lot more disturbing than the remains of the past. Happy freaking Halloween.

*Sexist reporting shout out to the Guardian here, referring to what happened as a “spat” between 2 female politicians. Would you say that about two blokes? Nice.

Lost tri….NO. Just no.

I just finished watching BBC 2’s Horizon with Prof. Alice Roberts. And from the get-go, I knew it was going to make me cross, although there was a roll call of the great and good of Palaeolithic archaeology and genetics popping up to share great research. Chris Stringer, Svante Paabo and others- pretty big time.

So why was I angry? The title was just so inappropriate. I blogged earlier this week about it being Baby Loss Awareness week. It’s also the week in which Columbus Day falls, a week in which indigenous communities and their supporters have called to be recognised as a time to remember the genocide inflicted on these people in the Americas and elsewhere.

So, really really not a good time for a show using the words “Lost Tribe” in the title to be on telly. And for those words to be repeated at regular infuriating intervals throughout the show. And used in sentences like “bred with Neanderthal tribes,” which stink of eugenics and dehumanisation.

The word “tribe” is problematic as it was used to denigrate indigenous communities consistently and systematically for a very long time. It was part of a colonial discourse which refused to recognise these people as fellow human beings, but saw them as evolutionary back-alleys, ready to be absorbed into whiteness, one way or another: through murder, epidemic, aggressive acculturation, sterilisation or intermarriage (which veiled a good deal of rape).

The idea of a “lost tribe” is even more tied to this discourse. The vision of a Victorian explorer encountering an uncontacted community is wrapped up in these words, and every time uncontacted people in the Amazon are intrusively photographed from the air it pops up again. It is the language of lazy tabloids, of sneering colonial officials, of dehumanisation and the degradation of human beings. It is not the language that should be used on a scientific television programme.

And don’t give me that crap about accessibility and capturing interest with familiar tropes. The end does not justify the means. Words have power, as you on the tellybox know. You should know better.

 

 

Preggo with Pliny Part 1

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TW: this post incorporates discussion of pregnancy loss.

Yep, I’m pregnant. Baby #2 is due in March of this year, all being well. Last time around I was at work, coming in at 7pm and leaving the house at 6am. This time, things are more laid back- I mean, there’s more heavy lifting (how can a toddler weigh so much? Is she made of concrete?), but also a bit more brain left at the end of the day. There’s only so much of my brain that gets used up by multiple readings of “Ready Steady Mo” and howling like a toy wolf (her favourite activities). Another difference is this time I’ve more or less ditched the pregnancy manuals I so zealously read last time around.

The upshot of more time and less manuals is this, a little look at  pregnancy advice from Gaius Plinius Secundus. Unsurprisingly, Pliny’s Natural History is written and designed to inform a largely elite male audience. In a basic and biased synopsis: Chapter 4 is centred on when a child can be expected to be born, policing women’s sexual behaviour by birth date. Chapter 5 focuses on how soon you can start to aspire to that longed for male child by microanalysis of pregnancy symptoms. Chapter 9 reminds you of why it’s not a good idea to have sex with your pregnant wife, Chapter 13 that if a woman doesn’t menstruate, she can’t give you a child, but if you impregnate your wife while she’s breastfeeding, you won’t affect her milk supply- as long as the first baby was yours too. But still, if you’re the actually pregnant person, you might find the following interesting:

First off, don’t catch a cold while you’re trying to conceive. Pliny writes that if you sneeze after having sex then you will automatically expel any potential child from your womb and abort a pregnancy before it starts. If you manage to keep the sneezes in, you can expect a headache and the beginnings of nausea to arrive about 10 days after conception- the first signs that you’ve conceived. Never mind weeing on a stick, that headache you thought was dehydration was the first sign*.

Throughout the first trimester, you might feel sick- I spent many an unhappy late afternoon on the bathroom floor this time around, in contrast to last time where apart from one incident in John Lewis (never knowingly undervomited) I had only light nausea. According to Pliny, that means we can expect another little girl: anything bad in pregnancy and labour points to a female child, and that includes morning sickness. Interestingly, this sexist nonsense survives in numerous old wives tales that were unhelpfully recounted to me in recent weeks*.

Also, I really should have been watching out for movement earlier too. Pliny says that a male child will be felt moving in the womb (presumably because men are, y’know, more vigorous and that) 40 days after conception, while a weak little woman in waiting will be felt 90 days later. I take my hat off to the sensitivity of your abdominal muscles if you can feel fetal movement at approximately 8 weeks gestation. I’ve felt movement quite early this time around, but not until 14 weeks*.

I’m also lucky to have got through the first of the dangerous periods Pliny identifies as most likely points for miscarriage. He pinpoints the 4th month (around 12 weeks pregnant) as one of these flashpoints*. While much of the advice I’ve related to so far is downright dodgy, this strikes me as interesting, for two reasons. Firstly, reporting: at what point would a Roman woman have put her bleeding down as a late period? Having missed at least 2 periods, I suspect most would have recognised they were pregnant and therefore diagnose miscarriage if bleeding set in. Secondly, miscarriages at or around 12 weeks are often those we now identify as a “missed” miscarriage, where the body has not realised the pregnancy has ended, due to an issue with the ovum’s development or the cessation of the foetal heartbeat. This is usually identified (heartbreakingly) at the 12 week scan in the UK medical system, and a decision is made whether to wait for a natural end to the pregnancy or intervene with pessaries or surgery. The NHS advice is that if no bleeding has begun within 14 days of the scan, intervention should take place. This is the period covered by Pliny’s “fourth month,” and with the risk of associated risk of haemorrhage for the mother, it is dangerous indeed.

As someone who has experienced the highly unpleasant and potentially life-threatening situation of an ectopic pregnancy (indeed, the symptoms began while I was helping organise a conference and I completely missed all the danger signs), I wonder how many women died in the first trimester of pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy, maternal haemorrhage, hyperemesis gravidarium (severe morning sickness resulting in dehydration and starvation- it killed Charlotte Bronte in more recent times): even the early days are a dangerous time.I wonder if when we consider maternal mortality rates in the past we discount the less visible deaths in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

It’s Baby Loss Awareness week this week, 9-15th October. A good time to stop and pause and think of those affected.

*Natural History, Book 7, Ch 5

*7, 5

*7, 5

*7,5

*7,4

In Praise of Prezi

The first time I saw anyone use the presentation software Prezi, I hated it. Hated it. It had all the worst assets of PowerPoint: swoopy graphics that made me feel sick, showy offy zoom in and outs that added nothing to the points that the speaker was making. It was a distraction to the audience, and a bloody irritating one at that.

Then, a few years later, I was asked to speak at the Institute of Classical Studies in London. I had a large chunk of time. I had a lot I wanted to say. I didn’t want to use a script. I did want to be able to share my presentation afterwards.

So I thought of Prezi. I went back, thinking I would have a little play, and probably end up using PowerPoint. But something about actually making the presentation in this medium clicked for me. I’m a person who thinks visually, who likes to mind map and scribble, who likes to spread out their points all over a sheet of A4 and draw arrows between them before committing to (hopefully) elegant paragraphs. Prezi lets me do this in a way that looks more grown up archaeologist and less GCSE revision plans, turning scribbles into slick(ish) slides. By looking at the presentation laid out in front of you, my thought process can be instantly viewed by anyone interested. The medium allows me to clearly structure my talk in a visual way, which makes speaking without notes 100 times easier. The natural flow of the presentation is obvious, there’s no chance of losing my place and not knowing where I am.

Maybe that’s selfish in that Prezi’s easier on me, the speaker, than on you, the listener. However, for a long talk, the zooms and wiggles should be coming at you slowly and infrequently. I have used Prezi for a shorter talk, but I’m not sure I would again. Spread out the pain for the audience and they might get caught up in the ideas and delivery and let you get away with it.

I’m about to give another longer talk at UCL, and have just finished the Prezi for that, too. While the swoopy overdone effects still annoy me, I think the chance to visually follow a story from start to finish, not just skim through slides, makes them worth putting up with. But if anyone knows how to get rid of the damn things that would be great. Cheers.

And if you’d like a look at my Prezi creations, here’s that initial ICS talk: https://prezi.com/1ghaybchcqqn/translating-the-corpus-vasorum-antiquorum/ I will put a link to my 18th October talk (which features some stats from the survey plugged below) up as soon as I’ve given it. If you find it on my Prezi, don’t give away the end 😉

**This post was sparked by a gentle and amused reproach for using Prezi when I mentioned it on Twitter. There’s not space in 140 characters to really explain why it works for me, so I thought I’d write about it.**

Confessional: Bones are Scary

So there’s been a little hoo-ha in the press this week about a trigger warning for archaeology students at UCL. I posted about trigger warnings and why they are important on my old blog- you can read that post here, it’s one of the last ones I did over there and one I’m still proud of. Because one major reason that trigger warnings matter (and this a point that the Spectator article missed) applies whether you choose to act on them or not. They let you know that your feelings are ok, that you are in a place where nobody will laugh or sneer at you for feeling them, unlike oh, I dunno, most of the internet below the comments line for starters. That is so important in an educational environment. So important. People need to feel supported and safe in order to learn. They need to feel free to express their feelings and responses to material culture (in our discipline) without fear of judgement by peers or by staff.

And let me say this here: skeletal material is scary. Can you look into the face of a victim of genocide and not feel saddened, frightened, worried? What if you are someone from a diaspora linked to that community? Are those feelings more intense? Do they mean you are worried about attending a class, nervous about your visible reactions in front of new friends and new mentors? It is essential that you know that those feelings are acceptable, that you can bring them to your lecturer and say: this is what I felt, and why I wasn’t there. Equally, that you know you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You can walk away and process by yourself what you have seen and how it made you feel.

Looking into the empty eye sockets of a long gone person, touching skeletal remains, gently laying them out on a table, is an emotional experience. Even when you don’t have a connection to the body you are touching or looking at, this aspect of archaeological practice changes you permanently. You cannot go back to who you were before. I know I was apprehensive about doing this. I know I felt uncomfortable, freaked out. I know that I considered not doing archaeology as a teenager as I was so unnerved by the prospect of dealing with human remains. That trigger warning would have reassured me that these feelings were normal, that they were shared, that I was not alone.

I personally feel that these feelings are a mark of respect, in their own way. They come from an awareness that these are not things, they are people. The trigger warning should act as a reminder of the need for that respect: for the remains themselves, and for fellow students. If you don’t think that’s important, I ask if you would be happy for the femur of your relative to have an expletive written on it in biro, something I saw on a specimen in one of my osteoarchaeology classes and was deeply distressed by. Whether reassuring the nervous or ensuring the respect of the brash, trigger warnings are about acceptable behaviour. It is absolutely acceptable to be frightened by skeletal remains. It is absolutely not acceptable to make light of or abuse them.

To end with a Ferranteism: trigger warnings are not just for those who leave, but for those who stay, too.

Living in an Old House

I’m a lucky pup. I live in a house that’s old enough to be protected by law. I love this house, it’s very much part of our family. But there are parts of it that are just… weird. They don’t work well for our needs. We need to change them. So we need to persuade the brilliant Listed Buildings team that these changes are right for the character of the building, as well as for the 3 (soon to be 4.. yes really…) of us living here.

Happily for us, a little research has demonstrated that they are, in fact, hideous 1980s additions to our beautiful 18th century farmhouse. The breeze blocks and rubbish stud walls were clear signs of modernity. Then, when we spoke to neighbours who knew the house, they expressed their shock and surprise at the presence of these “features:” namely, a half timbered ceiling and weird half timbered stud walls, a funky staircase and odd upstairs room at a different level to the rest of the house. Apparently, up until the 1970s turkeys were raised in this room which was then double height, and open to the rafters with raw stonework on display. So the half timbered stuff is a total pastiche.

That was a relief, but other discoveries were far more gratifying. For example, on an 1826 plan of the local church pews, our farm had its own pew in a prominent position, and a few years later the family built two large stone farm buildings. They seemed to be doing well. But the previous owners of the house had left us a record of a property auction. This family who seemed to be so prosperous had to sell their land only a short time after all this development. I’d love to know what happened, what went wrong. This glimpse into the house’s history is fascinating to me, and I’m grateful to that horrible staircase for leading me here.

I spend a lot of time thinking about past lives hundreds of miles from where I live and thousands of years ago. It’s a pleasure to think about those whose experiences mirror my own more closely. Wish us luck as things progress.