Wooooh… scary

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


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



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.**