Just a quick post to direct your gaze to the fantastic anthropology blog Savage Minds, as Colleen Morgan and myself are guest bloggers for the next month. In this capacity, we are coordinating a series of posts with some of our most inspiring archaeology/heritage colleagues, so pleased keep your eyes peeled. I’ve kicked us off with a reflection on recent work in Turkey, and we’ve already received some positive feedback.
I write this post from the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, where me and my team have been working for nearly four weeks this summer in our capacity as interpreters of the archaeological record for visiting audiences. We are responsible for all of Çatalhöyük’s on-site interpretation—the signage, maps, guidebooks, brochures, Visitor’s Centre displays, and presentation of the replica house. We evaluate visitor experience; we’ve been developing mobile applications and experimenting with more embodied, sensual engagements with the archaeological record; and this year we’re redesigning the Çatalhöyük website, and have initiated a short-term social media plan (see the site’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; we’re running them until Monday).
Most readers of this blog will know that I’ve been working at Çatalhöyük for seven (!) years now. It’s been a major influencing factor on my career trajectory and my personal development, so much so that I think it’s difficult to articulate the profound impact it has had on who I am. I don’t think I’m unique in feeling such—indeed, given that I am on site for just a few weeks per year, as opposed to 2 months or more like many of the rest of the team, I would imagine (indeed, I know) that others have been impacted on a deeper level. For me, personally, I would describe the experience as a seesaw of emotions—from deep awe to real heartache, from rapture to exasperation. Moreover, I’ve worked at the site through very turbulent times, across a period of massive change in the longstanding team, and I first came to the project as a student, unknown, with little experience, and wholly intimidated by Çatalhöyük’s legacy. My entire professional orbit has thus been set in place during my time here.
I would say that I’m regularly filled with reverence when I walk around the site. The phenomenal thinkers that you have the opportunity to interact with, and the intellectual landscape of the research programme here, are unparalleled. But more so, the archaeology itself—the art, the burials, the stacks of interwoven homes, the view down 20+ metres of excavated earth, spanning more than a 1000 years of continuous human occupation—is breathtaking. And if you’re ever on the verge of becoming complacent about these things, then you need only give a tour of the site to visitors. Through them – people who’ve travelled across the world to get to this remote part of Turkey – it’s easy to see Çatalhöyük anew, full of wonderment and countless questions about the intriguing nature of social and material practice in the past. It’s inspiring and hopeful – it reminds you of everything that archaeology (and life more generally) has the capacity to be: a powerful connector of individuals at a local and a global level; a trigger for curiosity across space and time; a prompt for consideration about the future (see the fabulous Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage project for another stimulating example); a provocateur of critical questions about what it means to be human, about all that we share among us, and about how humanity differs—sometimes nearly incomprehensibly—both at any given moment and between generations. By this account, archaeology, at its best, can be a transcendent practice, creating a space for diversity, for self-reflection, for marvel, beauty, cooperation, change, critique and forethought.
This is why it’s an irony to me that, on a human level, I’ve found the fieldwork at Çatalhöyük very challenging. These challenges play out both intellectually (see below) and emotionally. In terms of the latter, it seems ludicrous to suggest that one can be lonely whilst constantly (and inescapably) surrounded by 100s of specialists and other site staff. And yet, if you’re not attached to a well-established group, and if you don’t spend the full field season on site, you become a bit of a free-floater, searching for companionship amidst a crowd that has already solidified its relationships. I would say I’m one of those floaters, trying to bond with others, but often thwarted because of my affinity for close, private friendships, which are hard to establish or maintain with so many people around. As a consequence, one’s confidence seems regularly on the verge of collapse, and a feeling of isolation—compounded by the fact that we are already relatively physically isolated—immediately sets in and affects day-to-day existence. My experience on other field projects has not been as acute as on this one, I presume because of their smaller scale.
On the other hand, since I moved to York and have been able to bring my own students with me and simultaneously work closely with many Turkish tourism undergrads, I’ve managed to make some of the strongest bonds ever. Over my period at Çatalhöyük, I’ve been involved in the training of dozens of students, and I’ve watched their careers bloom, seen them move on to incredible life adventures, and been galvanised by who they are and who they’re becoming. These have been amongst the most satisfying of fieldwork experiences for me, at the same time as I struggle with the sadness of letting go of them and learning to rebuild myself with a new team every year. It’s that instability—that ongoing reassembling of oneself in the wake of the loss of what’s effectively your family, and hence having few or no close confidantes on a persistent basis on site—which takes the most toll on my spirit.
Intellectually, working here has always been demanding. I’ve given several conference papers on this topic, and I’m writing up two articles on the subject right now, but my teams have been attempting, since 2009, to implement and evaluate a reflexive method for heritage interpretation, using Çatalhöyük as the primary case study. One would assume this would be the perfect location for such research, yet it has been a constant struggle here not only to have heritage interpretation recognised as an actual epistemologically-productive investigative endeavour (see more on this here), but to be granted access, resources, time, support and true consideration for our ‘slow’ philosophy (akin to Caraher’s work), our bespoke approach, and our multivocal paradigm. Shahina Farid’s brilliant critique (her whole chapter seems to be freely available on Google Books – please read it because it’s a must-know piece on the realities of reflexive practice) gets at many of the issues we face – although she speaks specifically from the point of view of excavation practice. In many ways, I feel the whole field of heritage studies compounds our problems, because so much of it amounts to little more than caustic criticism with scarcely any concern for the practicalities of everyday, on-site labour, expectation management or resourcing. Duncan Light (2015:192) touches on these matters in his review of Russell Staiff’s (2014) fascinating book Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation: Enchanting the Past-Future when he writes:
But while Re-imagining heritage interpretation is a forensic critique of current practice, Staiff offers little in the way of a road map to interpreters about how they could do things differently (beyond pointing to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia as a possible model). Indeed, the author rather sidesteps the issue by stating that this book is not a heritage interpretation manual.
Anyone who has worked at a site which aims to impact upon tens of thousands of visitors per year, on a miniscule budget, with a tiny timeframe for execution, modest (or few) technical resources, and a small or fleeting staff, knows just how difficult it is to be true to one’s philosophical ideals—to be experimental, vulnerable, and critically demanding—while staying accountable and achieving the required deliverables. It is in negotiating these dimensions, and understanding how they fold together and can come into compromise, that I think the most productive (albeit arduous) heritage practice emerges.
Despite such challenges, I’m confident that at Çatalhöyük we’ve put in place a meaningful, replicable model for heritage interpretation which is true to the always momentary, fluid and flexible motto of the site. We’ve used a similar approach in our fieldschools in York, and I’ve increasingly been running short-term PhD courses internationally (I’ll be at the University of Oslo in September to lead students through 2 days of app development, and I was in Paris in April as part of the terrific DialPast programme) where I teach hands-on critical heritage interpretation.
Also, in September I will be taking up the reins of a new and incredible project—in Egypt. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to work in Egypt, and more than this, it’s been made possible by the receipt of my first major academic grant, which buys me out of some of my academic post and gives me the freedom to expand my practice, to learn from others, and to continue to bridge the gap between archaeological theory and method, reflecting on the real-world intricacies of heritage interpretation via a series of site-based fieldschools in Egypt over the next two years. As I wrap up one field season here at Catal, then, and prepare for new horizons beginning in September, I’m feeling heartened. This is due in no small part to my girlfriends Michelle, Laia and Sophie who’ve taken me under their wings while here at Çatalhöyük for the past four weeks and given me strength in the face of many challenges; to Ian K. who arrived a few days ago and has energised us all; and to my amazing students and team who’ve exceeded all expectations and have become lifelong friends.
Thank you so much for your support – including all of you who read this blog from afar and have been generous over the years with your kind words, constructive critique, and belief in the power of archaeology to craft a better present and future.
It’s the second anniversary of my academic post and I’m headed in momentarily for my annual assessment with my scholarly mentor. I continue to find the performance review process very meaningful both professionally and personally (albeit time consuming from a paperwork standpoint). This is not only because it allows me to lay out exactly what I’ve done over the course of a year and, in so doing, attempt to appreciate what is really a significant amount of work accomplished and actions achieved. But it also permits me an opportunity to reflect on all of those lightbulb moments and learning experiences that have changed me and my practice since January of last year, yet that often pass by so fast that I don’t fully recognize their impact on who I am as a human being.
2013 has been good for me, and I say this with much humility as I struggled deeply in my first year to find my way: to adapt to a new job, to new responsibilities with degrees of accountability so high they were truly frightful to me, and to a new city where I knew essentially only two people – friends from research projects – and spent a lot of time alone. More than this, I was very confused in that inaugural year on a personal level. Andy Shuttleworth did a wonderfully candid and very resonant blog post earlier in 2013 which all new academics should read. It speaks to the kind of inner turmoil that many of us go through as we get more and more bound into our PhD and post-PhD lives – a binding that can lead you into a form of corrosive and relentless self-interrogation and absorption that is damaging both intellectually and emotionally. Escaping that vortex came, in part, for me via getting to work and enjoy time with others – students, colleagues, friends, the public, and especially my partner and family – and learning to see problems as potentially transformative moments (which isn’t easy and is an ongoing effort for me). Because of all the people that I interact with now, unanticipated differences of opinion or unexpected difficulties in implementing plans are the norm. I try to appreciate them now less as failures on my part and more as spaces for me to come out thinking in new ways – although, as per below, I will not compromise myself if these problems contradict the evidence base and my moral code.
The highlights of my year are many, and a lot of them are already documented on this blog so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. But I do want to acknowledge some of those people who have made an especial difference in my career over the past 12 months.
My students continue to be the greatest revelation for me as a new academic. I remember when I was finishing my Master’s degree back in Canada and I was teaching an anthropology tutorial to a group which was clearly not engaged with the subject matter. A member of staff told me not to get discouraged, but to rather invest my energy in the couple of students who did clearly care about the topic. Whilst this advice was well-meaning, I’m glad I never took it to heart. Because what I’ve found is that if I experiment with approaches, if I offer opportunities for students to explore the edges of their creative capabilities, if I push outside normative modes of teaching and assessment and aim to cultivate safe places for students to make and test out ideas and learn the dimensions of constructive critique, I’m actually investing energy in everyone. And those students who one might never have imagined would participate or care about the subject matter, in fact, begin to work through the most thought-provoking and potential-filled concepts. Yes, things go wrong and we make mistakes and the path doesn’t lead where we anticipated. But taking this path – I think – is critical, because in my experience (and in spite of frustrations) it leads us on the journey with the most ‘a-ha’ moments. Our reflexive exhibitionary work at Çatalhöyük is full of these twists, and I’m especially lucky to have been able to take some of our York students out this year to continue the journey during what was my best season yet (read a bit about our work in the most recent Çatal newsletter: pp. 7-8).
These collaborations with my students in the classroom and in the field are just one of a spectrum of productive working relationships that I have with a range of interdisciplinary specialists. Honestly, I couldn’t realise the vast majority of my plans without the ideas and assistance of many people, most significantly Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist), who has been central to essentially all of the digital projects I’ve done at York to date. Tom is one of the most important individuals I’ve been able to work with in 2013, and my experiences have been further enhanced by meeting Simon Davis (E-Learning Advisor) and Ned Potter (Academic Librarian). These colleagues have variously advised me, taught my students, promoted my projects and challenged my ideas. They make my job not just interesting but fun and inspiring. And they are among a community of supportive people, some of whom I only know in digital form, who often provide critical feedback and much-appreciated positive reinforcement through channels like Google Plus, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook and Twitter. On top of this, I’ve also had multiple wonderful surprise introductions to individuals in different fields of practice, like digital identity specialist Abhay Adhikari, who have helped me to conceive of my own work in new ways.
It is a testament to just how much can be accomplished when you have a collaborator (or two) and a few resources to help you out.
This is where some of my frustrations begin to surface, because I couldn’t have done any of that project on my own, without Southampton’s seed funding and without Lucy and Jim. I would never have wanted to do it alone, but this wouldn’t ever even have been a possibility: I just don’t have the time owing to the fact that it is consumed with endless other tasks that constantly interrupt your thinking, pulling you out of meaningful reflective moments and making it seemingly impossible for you to string together something coherent on your own. The greatest disappointment of 2013 is surely the 10 funding applications that were submitted for various projects and academic schemes on which I was either a PI or CI, but which were successful in only 3 instances. I am positive that part of the problem here lies in my lack of time to invest in the full intellectual development and refinement of these applications.
This is the demoralising catch-22 of the academic sphere (or one of them at least): I’m finding it hard to set in motion full research projects because I don’t have the time, but I can only find the time if I win sufficient money to buy me out of my other duties and fund research collaborators. But…I need time/support to articulate those funding bids in the first instance. That bit of money that Southampton offered to us led to two subsequent and successful applications to other funders, which speaks again to what might be achieved with the tiniest amount of investment up front. It is profoundly frustrating to recognise that, firstly, such miniscule investment is so elusive, and yet that, secondly, I must somehow secure it to ensure my own career progression.
I’m clearly not the only person struggling with this problem, but it leads me to another concern that surfaced in 2013: namely the now incalculable requests that I’ve received for myself or my students to offer their creative labour for free for causes that aren’t linked to any explicit learning objectives or to demonstrable and equal benefits for them. My partner is an artist, so this predicament is sadly not new to me, but it hasn’t been until recently that, via my field of expertise, I’ve also gained the status of creative producer and teacher of creative producers. In my despair about what seems to be exploitation couched as ‘good experience’, I’ve begun to do some research on the subject (which has been studied by many – amongst the better known as regards unpaid digital work is possibly Tiziana Terranova’s (2002) Free Labor – but also see the critiques being outputted now by archaeologists themselves, like Sam Hardy’s unfree archaeology blog and Emily Johnson’s#freearchaeology hashtag on Twitter). I’m distraught by the idea that in the seemingly ubiquitous search for funds and time, some (many?) heritage practitioners and practitioners-in-training appear to be taken advantage of as unpaid labourers who produce outputs that others then use for profit without providing any genuine reciprocity or compensation for such labour. Whilst I believe in the value of volunteering, I don’t want to reproduce this process, and I’m committed in 2014 to ensuring, where I can, that students volunteer their time to tasks with fair, equitable and well-defined goals which are truly pedagogically and intellectually meaningful. Ultimately, I see this as an opportunity, because long-term equal collaboration that intertwines creative producers with other professionals is a highly constructive pursuit on multiple levels for all parties involved. Indeed, this is the very subject that the last 10 years of my own research has centred upon.
I’ll end by saying that 2013 was made better for me by the many of you who, like Andy Shuttleworth, put your experiences out there for all the rest of us to learn from. Howard Williams’ reflections on the sub-Z-list celebrity status that comes with academic life was similarly meaningful to me. Please don’t hesitate to share other links and ideas!
I head into my review today feeling hopeful for 2014: committed to continuing to make a small difference in the world and, most importantly, standing up for my students, my research collaborators and motivators, my friends, family and my ethics.
Fingers crossed it all goes okay. Thank you so very much for your continuing support.