Thursday, 15 November 2018

From the Pacific to the North Sea: the ‘Melanesification' of the past


Yesterday I was reading Frederik Fahlander’s recent review of Oli Harris and Craig Cipolla’s Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium. It’s a generally positive review of a useful book, but what struck me was a comment he made about the ‘Melanesification of the past inherent in many relational archaeologies’. In this case, he’s referring to the notion of distributed agency as promoted by a lot of the adherents of ANT/Symmetrical approaches which is so current in contemporary thought. This has been very influenced by the work of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, particular his 1998 book Art and Agency which particularly used case studies drawn in particular from Melanesia (roughly including New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji). Fahlander highlighted the problems outlined by Bob Layton in extending a particularly Melanesian ontology about personhood and art to a more general cross-cultural sphere. In many ways this reflects the usual problem with analogical thinking in archaeology about specificity of context and the challenges of extrapolating from anthropological parallels

It also struck me as interesting as for a variety of reasons I’ve recently been reading a lot about the archaeology and anthropology of Oceania – particularly some interesting work by Nicholas Thomas, as well as Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds, and some stuff by the Tongan writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa. It reminded me quite how much archaeologists have used ideas ultimately derived from Oceanic contexts – the notion of prestige good exchange being an obvious example which has its origins in anthropological explorations of processes such as Trobriand kula rings. When I was an undergraduate, social evolutionary models looking at the development of chiefdom were popular amongst those working on Iron Age archaeology – much of it derived from anthropological and archaeological word carried out by scholars such as Timothy Earle on the more ranked societies that belong to eastern Polynesia (Tonga, Hawaii etc).

Interestingly there also seems to be a little outbreak of, if not Melanesification, at least Polynesification, in Viking studies. Both Mads Ravn and Neil Price have made a case for using Oceanic parallels to contextualise Viking society. In some senses there are some obvious connections, seafaring, ranked societies with evidence for tran-oceanic expansion driven by something beyond simple population expansion.

In my own reading I’ve found it really interesting taking some of these ideas that have permeated the archaeological literature back to their origin. In most cases it’s clear that the complexity and contingency of things like kula rings get stripped out when the model is transported. Also often, I’m not sure that anthropological parallels are always particularly illuminating when they are reduced to the banal level of ‘ooh look Pacific society exchange systems can be both reciprocal and hierarchical, a bit like Iron Age Britain’. I’ve my found my reading more useful in opening up possibilities rather than providing exact parallels, and also as a useful reminder of the sheer bloody messiness of non-state societies. They can be inconsistent, inchoate and are constantly dynamic. Indeed, it’s this complexity that so often gets lost when analogies are used to used uncritically – and as Matthew Spriggs has pointed out this kind of approach can strip out chronological change and contingency resulting in a kind of denial of history imposed on Oceanic societies. Ironically juicy anthropological parallels end up treated like Prestige Goods, handed around between peers and gaining their importance on the basis of their exotic provenance.

Anyway next week I’m off to London next week to go the British Library Anglo-Saxons: Kingdoms, Art and War exhibition and the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy; I look forward to seeing how a really good understanding of emerging social ranking in Toga can only be developed by drawing parallels with 7th century Mercia.



Fahlander, F. 2018. Oliver J.T. Harris and Craig Cipolla. Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, 238 pp., 32 figs, pbk, ISBN 978-1-138-88871-5). European Journal of Archaeology, 21(4), 640-643.

Hau’ofa, E. 2008. We are the ocean: selected works University of Hawaii Press

Layton, R. 2003. ‘Art and Agency’: A Reassessment. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9: 447–64
Price, N. & Ljungkvist, J 2018 Polynesians of the Atlantic? Precedents, potentials, and pitfalls in Oceanic analogies of the Vikings, Danish Journal of Archaeology

Ravn, M., 2011. Ethnographic analogy from the Pacific: just as analogical as any other analogy. World Archaeology, 43/ 4, 716–725.

Ravn, M., 2018. Roads to complexity: Hawaiians and Vikings compared. Danish Journal of Archaeology

Spriggs, M., 2008. Ethnographic parallels and the denial of history. World Archaeology, 40/4, 538–552

Spriggs, M., 2016. Lapita and the Linearbandkeramik: what can a comparative approach tell us about either? In: L. Amkreutz, et al., eds. Something out of the ordinary? Interpreting diversity in the Early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 481–504.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Reflections on Remembrance Sunday 2018


Last weekend I went to the Remembrance Sunday memorial events in the centre of York, marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of World War I. As it was such a key anniversary, there were hundreds, probably thousands of people attending an event that is usually more subdued. I’ve blogged previously about some of my personal emotions about Remembrance Sunday, but I want to hear just briefly reflect on the physical experience of attending a large community ritual event – a little light autoethnography if you will.


My first observation was the capacity for sound to cause affect (in the psychological sense of the word i.e. provoking or causing an emotional response). Obviously, at an event such as this there was music- a military band marching at the head of the parade leading to the memorial gardens and the playing of the Last Post. However, it was the two-minute silence that really struck me as an incredibly potent element of the ceremony. I found the silence of a large crowd in the middle of a large city quite remarkable – indeed, a little unnatural. In particular, it was noticeable how the need for silence changes the physical dynamic of the crowd. The end of conversation means that the people stop interacting with each other – although one or two couples stood close to each other and some parents held children, on the whole there was a noticeable ‘atomisation’ of the crowd. The combination of lack of noise and lack of other forms of interaction resulted in a really peculiar tension between being in a group and being an individual.  The marking of this odd liminal period was also signalled by noise, in this case the firing of a pair of field guns. Having done a little research the 2 minute silence had its origin in Cape Town South Africa in 1918 following a practice that had been used intermittently in churches in town since 1916. Even from the beginning it was marked by noise – the firing of the noon day gun and ending with the playing of the bugle.

The other observation was the underlying low level disorganisation. People were uncertain where to go, a lot of people couldn’t see well, the march got split into two sections by accident, people were jostling to get a good position and there were clearly moments of uncertainty even amongst the civic party. The periphery of the crowd was also threaded through with individuals who weren’t taking part, trying to work their way through the crowded pavement, cars stopped by the police and children crying. It was a healthy reminder that although when we think of ceremony and ritual in the abstract we tend to envisage a clearly shared script, informed participants and a impeccable organisation. In fact, even with a militarily organised, important high-profile event such as this, there were still ragged edges, awkward moments and confusion.



Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Citational Practices - some thoughts


I’ve belatedly been reading Colleen Morgan’s great blog post about what she terms ‘citational communities’ – the invisible colleges of academics and researchers and their publications that we cite to support our own published work. A key message of her thoughtful piece is that for many female scholars, there is not only a glass ceiling, but also glass walls which result in their work being undercited and referenced. I suspect that the extent of this varies widely from discipline to discipline with some academic communities being more male dominated than others. The key point though is that citation is essentially a political act, in which we as researchers can align ourselves with or against other scholars or perhaps more perniciously cut scholars entirely out debates by sidelining their work.

I confess my first reaction on reading the article was to think how different her particular field (digital archaeology) is compared with my own (early medieval Britain) – and I was shocked at the practices she was mentioning (people actively not citing rivals or preferentially citing friends). There are many major female scholars in my field of my own, and earlier and younger generations, whose work has been profoundly influential on my own work at a personal level as well as within the wider subject (on a personal level- Tania Dickinson gave me a grounding in Anglo-Saxon archaeology as an UG that I am still grateful for; working on early medieval Northumbria and Wales scholars such as Rosemary Cramp and Nancy Edwards have also ben fundamental to my development as a researcher). I can and do cite these and many other female scholars regularly

However, a key point of Colleen’s blog was also that these kind of biases need not necessarily grow out of explicit or overt prejudices, but also the more structural biases implicit in academia. It made me think about how my own citational practices actually work. Again, my first reaction was that I just cite what is most relevant or appropriate in a particular context. Yet, ion reflection I think it is probably true that I do tend to cite colleagues and friends more often. Partly, this is for practical reasons, I’m often more aware of what they have written and their research output. Like most academics I feel that I’m constantly struggling to keep up with the current literature being churned out even in a small field such as mine; inevitably I tend to be better at reading the work of people who work down the corridor or who are friends outside academia – often because they’ve asked me to read it before publication. Within my world, due to its size, there tends to be a greater collegiality – I can think of very few people working in my world who I do not know personally to a greater or lesser extent. However, even within this world there are clear sub-communities – they are partly based on sub-specialisms, but they are also influenced by other factors, particular geography and generation. Regionally, it is inevitable that people tend to be more aware of the work of those who are in physical proximity. Based in Durham and living in York I tend to have better links and understandings of scholars working in Durham, York and Newcastle than Southampton or Exeter. These kind of regional connections are also particularly important in the development of informal networks of peers when people are early in their careers, particularly during their Phds. For example, when I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, there was a distinct cluster of PhD students all working on broadly similar topics (early medieval archaeology in Britain) in what might be termed the ‘Thames valley corridor’ - London, Reading and Oxford. We knew each other’s work and went to the same seminars and conferences – but as, or perhaps, more importantly, was the more informal networking at pubs and parties; I probably spent more time actually talking about my work in the pubs of Oxford and ULU than I did in my own Department. Inevitably, although as a peer group we have now dispersed to universities across the country I still keep a closer eye on the output of my friends than perhaps I do of people I don’t know so well.

This issue of informal networking (the apr├Ęs conference and Saturday night party) brings us back to the initial point. As I get older, I do less of this; family commitments and work pressures mean I get to less conferences and I’m far more selective in what I do go to (I tend to be more conservative in choice of conference and tend to only go if I’m speaking myself). I get out to the after-research seminar drinks less and haven’t been to a decent party for a long time. Parental responsibilities (and more importantly ‘parental desires’ – being a dad is something I enjoy rather than see as being a duty) tend to fall on women’s shoulders far more extensively than on men’s (this is not a good or inevitable thing, but it is in our society a truth). As a result, it often ends up being harder for women with families to get to conferences or if they do, to stay for the social side of things. The events which I’ve found so important in developing my personal and citational research communities are precisely those which young scholars with families (or indeed young scholars outside academia with limited access to the time/money needed to go to conferences) – due to structural biases in our society this tends to be more of an issue for women than men. If as a middle aged man with a permanent academic post I struggle with engaging with the academic world beyond reading published research, then how hard is it for those earlier in their careers? As someone who worked outside academia until their mid-30s I remember the struggle – and that was before we had children.

So, what can I do? Sticky one, but basic stuff includes ensuring the conferences that I am involved with are more family friendly and be pro-active in ensuring gender parity in panels and line-ups of speakers, try to engage more via things like Twitter, blogs, social media with the work of younger scholars, think about my necessarily selective reading more carefully and try to find time to be a little more adventurous in what I do look at. I like Colleen’s idea of setting up a list of female contemporary archaeologists that can be cited as a way of encouraging us to be more imaginative in our use of citation. We all tend to stick to the well-worn hollow ways of citational traditions we have erode into own personal academic terrain; sometimes it’s good to  get out of these ruts.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Exploring Brookwood Cemetery


A couple of weeks ago, we had an unexpected visit to the great cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Originally, designed as an overspill cemetery for the corpses piling up in Victorian London, it is perhaps best known for its ‘Necropolis Railway’ that ran straight from London Waterloo to the cemetery itself. What I found most fascinating though was not the earlier phases of the cemetery, but the more recent areas, which contained burial zones dedicated to a complex mix of different religions and ethnicities. As I’ve done a lot of work on early medieval burial, in which the role of ethnicities and religious beliefs are so much at the front of people’s thoughts, it was a useful exercise to see how these aspects of identity were played out in a more contemporary setting.

The first area we explored was the Catholic zone – itself a reminder that Christianity comes in more than one flavour and that certain communities felt the need to spatially differentiate themselves from others (although there was no formal boundary between this area and the burial zones of other traditions). Strikingly, although whilst the individuals within this area were all buried within the same faith tradition, there were other identities being signalled in their burial, particularly ethnicity. There is clearly a significant Italian diaspora community in this part of Surrey - and they were marking themselves out in death. They were doing in this in a number of different ways. First, there was a clear physical clustering of graves with Italian names in a certain part of the Catholic zone. In some cases, particularly in the slightly older burials, Italian was used in the epitaphs, but often most of the text was in English , although often the place of birth was often indicated down to the level of the town or village in which the person had been born in. Another feature, distinctive to these was the use of photographs of the deceased. Such photographs are not a particularly British tradition (although it is starting to become more common), so the consistent use of photographs in this area certainly marked out the occupants as ‘not British’ even if not specifically Italian.

It is tempting to see the declining use of Italian on the graves as an indicator of some level of assimilation by the Italian community. However, in other aspects of the burial tradition of this community there seemed to be in more recent years a very pronounced revival of a very distinctively Italian burial tradition – the construction and use of columbaria. Columbaria are upstanding constructions containing multiple compartments for individual cinerary remains. Anyone who has travelled abroad will have seen these used widely in the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy, often rather resembling banks of marble filing cabinets. Often groups of compartments are dedicated to the use of a specific family. Their use is certainly alien to the English tradition. However, here at Brookwood, columbaria only seem to be start being constructed in the 21st century, where they only seemed to be used by the Italian community. In this sense, the Italian population are seemingly becoming more rather than less Italian in death as time goes by.

It would be interesting to find out more about how this has come about. One possibility is that as direct links with their overseas origins ebbs away as older generations pass, the younger community feel a need to signal their loyalty to their roots in other ways even if only in death. There are though other issues at play here though I’m sure. I’d be interested to get a better understanding of two factors. Firstly, how far do changes in cemetery regulations at Brookwood influence what is acceptable and permissible? Most cemeteries have very tight regulations about the range and design of burial memorials that are acceptable. Brookwood is a private cemetery, run on a commercial basis, rather than a municipal cemetery or a Church of England graveyard; thus they need to be savvy to attract clients. I can see this resulting in a pressure to allow more experimentation and unorthodoxy in memorial types – it is possible that columbaria only became acceptable within the cemetery relatively recently and that before that, even though the desire was there, people were simply not allowed to build and use such unorthodox (in a British context) memorials. Another hypotheses that would warrant further consideration is the pragmatic issue of the availability of the necessary skills and technologies to construct columbaria. Presumably, traditional UK undertakers in the past only offered a defined and limited range of burial monuments, which did not include columbaria. Potentially, it took some time for there to be enough demand, and presumably access to plans and exempla for commercial undertaking concerns to be able to move beyond simple head and kerbstones to being able to construct more complex memorials.

Both of these explanations are just working hypotheses – it is quite possible that that one, neither or both may be relevant, as well as other alternatives. Pleasingly, as these are contemporary burial traditions rather than archaeological case studies, it should, in theory, be possible to drill down deeper into the choices being made here. As archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking about agency and the active decisions being made by people to express identities- this is a useful reminder that no matter what people might desire, there are also often pragmatic limitations (procedural, economic and social) that limits what people are actually able to do in practice.

The second area we explored was the substantial Muslim area of the cemetery. This was a real experience, as whilst I’ve seen plenty of non-British cemeteries before, this was a tradition I was not really familiar with. Handily, we got talking with a local man from the Pakistani community was really interested in talking about his religions approaches to burial and was frank about how some decisions were made. I am indebted to him for this time and willingness to report.

However, more widely, the same patterns that could be seen within the Catholic area to differentiate individuals and communities could be seen at play in this area. Groups were particularly differentiating themselves in terms of national origin, which although ultimately subordinate to religious identify was clearly an important structuring principal. Again, language was used as a differentiating strategy – some used just Arabic script, others used English script, and some a combination of the two. The place of birth was also mentioned regularly. In some cases, such as amongst the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communities, national flags also often appeared on graves.

As with the Italian Catholic burials, the role of family tombs seemed much more apparent than in traditional British cemeteries. This may be a reflection of the differing significance of family groups in burial traditions in their native countries, but I wonder how much being part of an immigrant community may amplify or emphasise the importance of the family as a structuring principal in death and in life.

Obviously, Islamic burials are meant to broadly conform with a number of obligations – although obviously I’m aware there is huge variation here. A common requirement though is that the body should be at right-angles to the direction of Mecca. Interestingly, there was a surprising variety in alignment- sometimes even within the same burial compound or enclosure. The gentleman we were speaking to also said that often the precise choice of alignment might be constrained by pragmatic issues- for example, they were sometimes offset slightly if correct alignment would mean that the grave would intersect with one of the curved cemetery paths or roads. In other cases, the correct alignment might also result in a grave impinging onto a neighbouring plot. We were told that in this case the cemetery management company would charge for both plots in such cases, so sometimes economics came into play to prevent the ideal alignment being used.

Within the grave, we were told that coffins weren’t used, but in theory a barrier was meant to be placed between the body and the fill of the grave – stone or wood- but again we were told that this was also sometimes not used for reasons of cost. Presumably, this kind of price cutting was particularly easy as it was not visible after the interment itself and would only be known about by a small number of people.

Overall, it was a really thought-provoking visit – a distinct change from the many UK cemeteries and graveyards I’ve visited before. As I noted above archaeologist tend to be very interested in agency and choice in the mortuary process – particularly in the construction of ‘identities’ (whatever we might mean by that). The Brookwood experience has made me think a little more carefully about the constraints and limits that are also in place within any society. When looking at early medieval burials sometimes we tend to think about religious identities replacing ethnic and other identities- Brookwood was a reminder of how intermeshed and overlapping these identities can be in practice (and I didn’t even start to explore the issue of gender distinctions…).












Sunday, 27 August 2017

Iken: A Suffolk Scene


I’ve just come back from a holiday in Suffolk. It’s an area I’ve been to several times and one of the places I always come back to is Iken, an isolated hamlet on the River Alde. Its church, dedicated to St Botolph is almost certainly the location of Botolph’s monastery of Icanho founded in the mid-7th century. But for once, I’m not going to dwell on early medieval archaeology. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the particular tradition of ruralist and agrarian writing that emerged in the 1930s – the best known figures of this movement are people such as HJ Massingham and Adrian Bell. However, the cottage where we were staying had a copy of a book I’d not come across before, Suffolk Scene by Julian Tennyson (great grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson). It was a recent edition of the 1939 original and had a forward by Ronald Blythe, which is usually an imprimatur of good writing. The book itself is very much a period piece and contains paeans of praise to Suffolk wildfowling and contains some lengthy passages of rather awkward, light-hearted anecdotes in phonetic Suffolk accent, which seem a little twee to the modern reader. However, the morning before we went to Iken I lay on the beach and read this rather beautiful passage about the church:
“The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath the bracken and oak trees and steep sandy cliffs. There is something very restful about this place; very old and very friendly; there is no church in England which gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness. Behind it our fields, woods and heaths stretching down to Orford, to the right of it are the marshes and distant sea. A huge expanse of river lies before you when you lean over the graveyard wall; the long, dark pinewood of Blackheath and the bay in the corner where the widegeon gather in thousands on winter nights, seem at least two miles off; but wait till low tide and you will see the whole river fall away and it becomes a flat shining ocean of mud with the channel a thin thread through the middle of it. Whimbrel, curlew, redshank, dunlin, shelduck, mallard all the birds of the river come up to feed around Iken flats and their din sets the tame duck quacking raucously in the decoy at the back of the marshes. The noise of the birds is all that you will hear at Iken, except when the east wind drives across the marsh and lashes at the thatch of the church. When I was a child I decided that here was the place for me to be buried. I have not altered my mind. Everyone wants to lie in his own country: this is mine. I shall feel safe if I have the scream of birds and the moan of wind and the lapping of water all round me, and the lonely woods and marshes that I know so well. How can anyone say what he will feel when he is dead? What I mean is that I shall feel secure in dying”

I didn’t know much about the author at that point beyond the fact that he had been killed in Burma,
far away from the Suffolk he loved, at the age of 30 during the Battle of Arakan in 1945. It was moving then, when we got to Iken, to find his grave in the churchyard. It seems to be a relatively recent monument, unlikely to be more than a decade or so old. It was really rather touching having read his words about the church to discover that he did, as he hoped, end up there, where he must have lain submerged and unmarked in the turf before someone (who? Family? Friends?) placed a stone for him there.
We placed some shells taken from the beach near the mouth of the river on his gravestone and left him to listen to the wind in the trees and the birds on the river.
 
 
 










 


Monday, 21 August 2017

"There is sorrow on the sea": Maritime memorialisation


There is no escaping the sea on Holy Island. From our trenches we could look out across the harbour and beyond towards the Farne Islands; the wind brought in rain from the North Sea and the cries of seabirds and seals was a constant accompaniment to life on the island.

But the sea is not just a constant as a natural phenomenon. It also appears repeatedly in a materialised form in monuments and memorials that are found across the island, particularly in and around the parish church. Not surprisingly, on an island which has produced many sailors, death by drowning was a real threat, and deaths by drowning are recorded on several graves – interestingly several have nice depictions of boats on them. For example, the grave of John Stevenson (d1875) who died in a wreck off nearby Bamburgh has his stone decorated with a fine carving of a typical local fishing boat known as a coble, and the edge of his grave is finished with rope-like cable twist moulding. Imagery of the sea can be found on other, such as the anchor symbol – a not uncommon image on 19th century graves, but a particularly potent image on an island such as this.

But in death, the sea didn’t only take people away; it also brought strangers to Holy Island. One burial plot, placed in a prime position just by the entrance to the churchyard, is the last resting place of nine members of the crew of the SS Holmrook which sank just off the island in 1892 . A now almost unreadable stone also records the burial site of 13 year old Field Flowers who died in the wreck of the Pegasus on his journey back from school in Edinburgh in 1843. 

A particularly noticeable feature of the burial traditions on the island is the importance of recording
if the departed has been involved in the lifeboats that operated from the island. Since the foundation of the lifeboat service, there have been five lifeboat houses which operated from the island (or on the immediately adjacent mainland). Not surprisingly, given the notorious rocks and reefs off the nearby Farne Islands, as well as the rocks on the north side of Holy Island itself, there have been many shipwrecks in the islands’ waters. These included both local vessels, as well as those from further afield. The role of working on the lifeboats, a volunteer role taken by fishermen and other resident seafarers, was incredibly important- and clearly purveyed a sense of corporate identity amongst its membership, which seems to have transcended many other possible social roles on the island. George Kyle who died in 1960 is recorded on his grave as Assistant Motor Mechanic of the Holy Island lifeboat for 29 years – another George Kyle (d. 1912) is noted as having been both Second Coxwain and Coxwain Superintendent of the boat. Even now there are no lifeboats operating from the island anymore, the boards listing the rescues the lifeboat crews from the island had assisted in are still carefully maintained and displayed, just outside the churchyard.

Mercifully, Holy Island never saw any lifeboat disasters such as that at Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1899 which resulted in the deaths of seven lifeboatmen, who are memorialised by an impressive suite of monuments in Aldeburgh churchyard and a brass plaque in the church itself – both laden with maritime and nautical images and symbols.

Central element of burial plot for Aldeburgh
lifeboat men lost in 1899
disaster

I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast this summer – in Northumberland, Yorkshire and currently Suffolk. And wherever I’ve visited, the importance of the sea in forming and maintaining a distinctive tradition of memorialisation and commemoration is apparent. The seafaring experience, and its incredible dangers and regular fatalities, is something that seems to have particularly impacted on post-medieval (particularly 19th and 20th century) commemorative practices. The only other employment sectors that I can think off that have been particularly and specifically highlighted in burial practices are the military (obviously) and mining (I’m thinking particularly of the tradition of pit disaster memorials). Even in relatively recent times, there is a strong thread of modern monument making related to seafaring deaths- just close to where I’m writing this in coastal Suffolk, there is a relatively recent memorial plaque to a group of coastguards drowned in a wreck on the coast between Orford and Shingle Street, despite its distance from the coast, there is an RNLI monument at the National Memorial Arboretum, and most powerfully in Hull, a city which lost 6000-8000 men to the North Sea there are a number of recent monuments to these losses, including “The Last Trip” in Zebedee's Yard and for my mind most powerfully, a monument depicting trawlermen in silhouette on St Andrew’s Quay.
I don’t know of any large-scale study of maritime monumentality, but ultimately that the study of these kind of maritime monuments deserves to be resituated, and not just seen as part of the study of burial practices, but as an integral element of industrial archaeology, which should be recording all aspects of the lives and deaths of workers and their families

Lost Trawlermen monument, Hull (C) Creative Commons http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5289389


Fisherman's memorial altar, Holy Trinity, Hull  three trawlers St Romanus, Ross Cleveland and Kingston Peridot, all lost within a month- also plaque to the crew of the notoriously lost FV Gaul





Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buddha in the potato patch: adventures in comparative monasticism





We’ve now spent two weeks on the island, busy living and working on top of each other, with the last couple of days particularly cramped due to some awful weather. As today was our day off, it was no surprise that I chose to strike out alone off inland. I followed my nose westwards across Islandshire, off past Yeavering and into the Scottish Borders. Then I struck out up Ettrickdale, followed the valley of the Tima Water and soon crested over into the valley of the White Esk in the heart of Eskdalemuir Forest. Here stands, more than a little incongruously, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Samye-Ling.

Having been spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxon monastery it was thought provoking to explore a living monastery, albeit one of a very different tradition. Despite, or even because of, the huge differences between 7th century early medieval Christianity and 21st century Tibetan Buddhism, my exploration of this beautiful, peculiar, welcoming site at Samye-Ling got me thinking about cross-cultural commonalities in monasticism; some that are identifiable in the archaeological record and some that may not be.

There are some obvious similarities visually- the vivid use of colour found at Samye-Ling was probably also a feature of Anglo-Saxon monastic sites. We know that early medieval stone sculpture was often painted and that church interiors would have been decorated with elaborate fabric wall hangings and many lamps. Exactly the same scheme occurred in the prayer hall at Samye-ling which was adorned with figurative thangkas, fabrics, food offerings and oil lamps. This must have been very much how the interior of early churches appeared – incredible, sensory experiences which would have been particularly pronounced in a world before electric lights.
The first thing that struck me about Samye-Ling was the relationship between boundedness and the wider landscape. Whilst there was nothing like a monastic vallum of the kind we usually associate with medieval monasteries, there were elaborate ceremonial entrances to the site – marked by gateways and temples. Yet, despite the clear importance of these boundary markers, there was also an interplay with the wider landscape beyond these defined edges. Visually, the monastery was clearly a landmark- in particular its burnished gilded rooflines and prayer flags meant that its impact bled out into its hinterland. I wasn’t there for any ceremonies, but there were large cases of Tibetan trumpets and bells in the main prayer hall, so presumably the noise of worship, music and chanting, would also have been audible beyond the confines of the sacred centre.




This permeable nature of the boundaries was not just one way. I don’t know much about Tibetan monastic traditions, but the landscape location of the monastery was clearly important and engaged with the views beyond the enclosure. In a general sense, the remote rural location seems to have been important- perhaps echoing (in a small way) the mountainous landscape of Tibet. But more immediately, I noticed the careful placing of a small monument on the edge of the river White Esk that bounded the eastern edge of the monastery at the confluence of the river and the Mood Law Burn – it had clearly been located there with a view to framing this natural feature which lay outside the monastic enceinte. Obviously, from my Lindisfarne perspective it made me think of the architectural elaboration of key observation points within the monastery, particularly along the rocky outcrop known as the Heugh. Here recent excavations by another project have revealed a church and a possible cross base, to add to another cross base already known up there. The Heugh commands views not only to Bamburgh, but also Cuthbert’s cell on Inner Farne, as well as looking down on the monastery interior; its ritual importance seems to have come as much from its wider views as its immediate context within the monastery.

A second thing that struck me was the casual combination of the mundane and the ritual. There were clearly marked edges to the site and also well-defined areas of particular religious intensity, such as the prayer hall and the Victory Stupa prayer-wheel house. These nicely echo traditional Durkheimian notions of the sacred and profane; but in practice the situation was more complex. The Samye-Ling complex integrates lots of practical, day-to-day elements within it- as much space is given over to the vegetable garden as the prayer hall. Yet, even in these areas, the sacred intrudes – prayer flags flutter over the green beans and a figure of a buddha stands grandly over the potato patch. The boundary between the holy and the practical is a muddy one (quite literally after this weekend’s weather) – we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon crosses marking out holy areas – wells, boundaries and cemeteries. Perhaps we should also think about them imbuing cabbage patches, stables and barley fields with blessing. After all even Cuthbert on his island fastness on Inner Farne had to miraculously ensure his crop of barley succeeded when his crop of wheat had failed. It also recalls the crosses carved on querns from Dunadd and the cross-marked fishing net weights from Hartlepool. Yet again, despite the importance of inscribing boundaries, there is, in practice, in both monastic traditions a real overlap between sacred and profane.

A further aspect of the monastic experience that Samye-ling brought home to me was the importance of the monastic ‘body’ and comportment – both Buddhist monks and nuns, like Anglo-Saxon monks, are marked out by distinct robes and haircuts that separate them from the lay presence in the monastery. But there were more subtle aspects to bodily discipline that crosscuts the lay-monastic divisions. For example, at Samye-Ling, entry to the prayer hall required removal of footwear. Presumably originally a requirement to keep the inner sanctuary clean and as a mark of respect, but in a culture where we are not used to removing our shoes in public areas (as opposed in a domestic context) I found it provoked a surprising sense of vulnerability (particularly when wearing a pair of walking boots which required quite some getting on and off). The importance of the contextual significance of dress can still be seen today in some Christian churches – men are meant to remove their hats in church (unless they are a priest) whilst there are often demands for women to cover their heads in some traditions; having been brought up a catholic I’m old enough to remember seeing women wearing mantillas over their heads in church and in a completely different tradition, it’s worth watching the occasional broadcast of Free Presbyterian Psalm singing on BBC Alba as a reminder that the tradition of the Sunday church hat is still alive and kicking (check out the FP Church website for their ‘fun’ doctrine on gender and physical appearance and deportment).
Within the prayer hall itself, it was also interesting how visitors responded to the space in terms of their bodily posture. Many lay visitors reacted to being in a sacred space by holding their hands carefully, either clasped behind their back or in front of them and there was a noticeable reluctance by visitors to turn their back on the central focus of the hall (roughly equivalent to the position of the altar in a Christian church) – intriguing that people from a Christian background were interpreting the space of the Buddhist shrine in terms of the use of space in a church particularly in terms of how they physically held their body and oriented themselves within the structure. Whereas, the Buddhhist monks acting as what seems to have been vergers were far more business-like in their engagement with the holy space

Given the adoption of monasticism as a mode of life in a number of religious tradition – Christian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – and the use of other forms of collegiate religious life such as madrasah in traditions such as Islam - it would be interesting to explore the comparative aspect of this kind of communal religious experience more


PS: Finally, and slightly at a tangent, archaeologists are particularly prone to talk about technologies of commemoration or technologies of worship – usually as a metaphor. However, in some Buddhist traditions, prayer wheels are used to say prayers- each rotation of a wheel being equivalent to saying a prayer or a mantra. Usually these are hand-held wheels spun manually. But in some cases, the rotation can be mechanised, with the wheel attached to a water-drive wheel or even powered by an electric motor. At Samye-ling they had a rank of these electric powered prayer wheels – fantastic examples of real rather than metaphorical technologies of worship – they also reminded me of Douglas Adams’ ‘electric monk’ in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency– “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” But don’t get me on to the agency of inanimate objects…