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.

Just a few short questions…

Beautiful Bologna

I used to have a truly wonderful job, designing archaeology holidays. It was magic, with great colleagues, liberal amounts of exciting travel and a fascinating merry-go-round of daily tasks. Of course, it was hard work too, but the legacy of the job (as well as the good friends and the seriously transferable skills..) was a deep and passionate interest in the perception of the past in the present by the people who pay for it: the taxpaying masses, the visitors whose entry fees, donations, and gift shop purchases keep heritage sites alive. Naturally, having worked in Italy for a long time, I was particularly interested in the way these things play out in the Italian context: who visits what, and why?

As my previous post explored, I’ve noticed patterns of visitation: obviously, some big sites (or should that be sights, in this context?) are going to get hordes of tourists and lots of attention. But just how enormous is that phenomenon? I don’t think that just reeling off the statistics on how many people visited Pompeii in 2015 (2.5 million, a remarkable proportion of Italy’s approximately 20 million tourists) versus those who visited (say) the Museo Archeologico in Sarteano, is necessarily helpful. What I would like to know- and when I say “know” I mean quantify and get some juicy data on- is to what extent people’s preconceptions and imaginings of the Italian past impact on their holiday choices- where they visit, and what they want from their hols.

I can’t really give more away here without potentially influencing answers, so here’s the plea: I’ve put together a very short survey that I would be very grateful if you would consider taking. I’d be even more grateful if you would share the survey when you are finished. If you see any glitches or issues, I would of course be SUPER grateful if you’d point them out to me.

Thank you very much, and I’ll let you know what the answers come out as.