Saturday, 1 December 2018

Soul Cake Challenge


Today Issy (no 1 Daughter) and myself did a  little experiment in historical baking. We've been doing some Christmas cooking, but as we had all the spices out we thought we'd try the Soul Cake Technical Challenge. Soul Cakes were small spiced buns traditionally baked to celebrate All Souls Day (Nov 2nd), a feast in the Christian calendar which was also often accompanied by popular dramatic performances, such as forms of mumming and similar forms of folk theatricals. 




The Records of Early English Drama (North-East) is a project based at Durham University carrying out a major research project into all forms of early drama, including performances related to All Souls Day. On their blog they've been sharing a lot of information about Souling traditions, and as part of this have been encouraging people to try their hand at making Soul Cakes using an early 17th century receipt. The challenge being that early recipes were often pretty minimalist, and rarely include such minor details as quantities or cooking times. The recipe that was given was one taken from the household book of Lady Elinor Fettiplace (c1570-c1647). She lived for much of her life at Appleton (which although the blog says is in Oxfordshire, is actually in Occupied North Berkshire). 


The actual recipe is as follows:Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them or fruit.


It is mostly self-evident, although sack was a dry white wine (similar to sherry) and ale barm is the yeast from brewing beer. We tried to follow it as close as possible, the only differences from the receipt used by Lady Fettiplace was that we had no ale barm, only instant yeast, and we had no nutmeg. For the sack we used some sherry (good splash); the flour was white plain flour, the sugar was white caster sugar.





We based our proportions on a soul cake recipe we found on-line, but because this also contained eggs and the ale barm would have also been liquid(ish), we found our initial mix rather stiff, so we loosened it with a little bit of milk. We ended up with something more like a bread dough rather than a cake batter. We left this in a warm place to rise for about 90 minutes. We decorated them with some currents in the shape of a cross and baked them for about 30 minutes at Gas Mark 5. End result, something that resembled slightly dense hot-cross buns. You could taste the spices, but the sack (sherry) didn't bring much to the party to be honest. I think we could probably have used a bit more yeast to make them rise a bit better, but otherwise, not bad at all. Now feeling inspired to investigate the Fettiplace book for more North Berkshire Jacobean recipes. Also might give the some of the online recipes for Soul Cakes although I imagine that as these contain egg, that they will be more 'cakey' than the sweet bread buns we made today.



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.