End of the (PhD) Road: Reflecting on 5+ Years of Graduate Studies in Archaeology

Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.


Here you can see me looking absolutely thrilled in a puffy hat.

So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.

The Good

One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.

And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.

Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).

The Bad

To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.

Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).

The Verdict

So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.

I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…

Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.

References

Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/

Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists

Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/

Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/

Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465

Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/

Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in British Archaeology)

It’s not the entire issue with regards to the lack of intersectionality in making archaeology inclusive and diverse, but white feminism is certainly an issue.

At this point, it’s not at all shocking to declare that there is a real problem with regards to race within British archaeology; the most recent Profiling the Profession survey shows that 97% of the field is white (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2021), and there has been a number of articles reiterating the lack of diversity among archaeologists in the UK (e.g., Rocks-Macqueen 2013, Dave 2016, White and Draycott 2020).

However, it does seem as though the field is slowly but surely beginning to act towards amending this lack of diversity, although I would argue that a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by BIPOC* in British archaeology; for example, see the incredible work of groups like the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. But beyond ground-breaking groups such as the ESBAA, what else is being done? And is it enough?

Alongside the ESBAA, many other groups and initiatives have been introduced and developed to work on making British archaeology more diverse and inclusive. But, unsurprisingly, many of these groups are majority white – which is, again, unsurprising based on the demographic of the field. And while these people often are well-meaning and have good intentions, I wonder if there are internal conversations happening with regards to the fact that they themselves are potentially perpetuating the sort of environment that causes BIPOC to leave British archaeology.

Because it is hard to see these overtly white spaces without feeling the need to keep your guard up; personally, its one of the reasons why I have often avoided interaction with many of these groups. As a Chinese-American archaeologist in the UK, I have had my share of racist interactions: readers will note that I no longer have comments or messages enabled on this blog due to the amount of harassment I’ve received. And unfortunately, it isn’t just limited to random Internet trolls, either; in writing about racism in British archaeology and how I have felt that there has been a lack of urgency in the way the field handles racism, I have received angry responses from other archaeologists who felt that this perception was an attack of sorts. And it isn’t, to be honest – I truly do not believe that many archaeologists realise that they can inadvertently create environments that make BIPOC feel unwelcome. But on the other hand, I also don’t know what it will take for this realisation to occur, nor do I know if I have the patience to continue to wait, especially as I see friends and colleagues bear the brunt of constant microaggressions and other subtle forms of racism; for white people, these things may seem trivial and unimportant, but for BIPOC, it culminates and wears you down on a physical, emotional, and psychological level (Sue 2021).

And this extends into work on diversity and inclusion in British archaeology as well, something I’ve been thinking about even more as I transition my professional work into EDI research. For example, there has been a lot of important work done on further highlighting the women in British archaeology who were once obscured by the white, male “intellectual giants” that are so often associated with the field. However, as much as I can appreciate this work as a feminist, I am also unable to connect with it on a personal level; the needs and desires of a white feminism are not the same as my own. And perhaps that is selfish, and again, I understand on an academic and broadly feminist level why this work is important…but I’ve cannot seem them as “heroes” of mine, when we have very little in common. And its not just white feminism, either – when we discuss fieldwork safety, where are the discussions on the specific dangers that come with being Black or Brown in the field (Viglione 2020)? Or the compacted issues of being a queer person of colour (Poku 2020), or a disabled person of colour (Taylor, Smith, and Shallish 2020)? When we discuss inequalities in finances and the pay gap, do we contend with the ways in which the gap increases for women of colour (Almeida, Brodnock, and Lordan 2021)? How will British archaeology help to support the needs that come from the intersections of marginalisation?

These mixed feelings that I have had regarding British archaeology and diversity efforts in the field have been echoed elsewhere. Over the past few years, there has been a call for groups purporting to be doing diversity and inclusion work to look inwards and critically examine the usefulness of their work. Highlighted issues have included the constant centring of whiteness (Gassam Asare 2021), shallow-level politics of performativity (Morris 2020), and the corporatism and marketisation of DEI work (Newkirk 2019). I think there is an inherent knee-jerk reaction to criticising these groups, and on some level I can understand why…but if actual, transformative change is going to happen, it will require an uncomfortable level of examining biases and actions…even for the “good guys” out there.

With the problem being as pervasive as it is, what’s to be done to fix it? In some ways, it’s a circular issue: to attract a more diverse cohort of archaeologists, we need to provide them with a safe space for them to study and research, but can we do that whilst we have such an underrepresentation of BIPOC at the moment? Again, I know that many of my white colleagues are doing their best to unlearn certain behaviours and attitudes in the name of allyship, but the point still stands that an overwhelmingly white space may always be an unwelcoming space to others.

What I do know is that white archaeologists need to move away from focusing solely on representational politics; this is not to say that they should stop efforts to further diversify the field, of course! But it cannot be seen as the only way forward – there must be an equal amount of effort being put towards retainment as well. It is unethical, and arguably even an act of violence, to be enticing BIPOC into a space that continues to be harmful to them, whether or not said harm is even a conscious effort on behalf of our white colleagues. These sentiments can be seen in the ESBAA’s recent manifesto, which identifies three sets of barriers that must be dealt with in order to allow for BIPOC to access the field: access and recruitment, retention and support, and mentorship and allyship (Brunache et al. 2021). I would highly suggest that anyone, but specifically white archaeologists in British and European archaeology, read the manifesto, which provides a clear and succinct vision of moving forward with this discipline. To end this post, I want to echo the final remarks by the ESBAA in their manifesto: that, ultimately, we want the field to be better. That archaeology can only become something better and perhaps even more transformative and radical by broadening our field to include marginalised peoples from around the world. But only by doing this hard work together can we accomplish this.

*Note – Throughout this blog post I have used the term “BIPOC”, or “Black, Indigenous, People of Colour”. I want to also acknowledge the limitations of this term, as the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are very distinct and that lumping us all together erases the harms that are inflicted within this broad group of non-white identities, such as anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous settler-colonialism. I want to reiterate that my perspective is from a Chinese-American one, formerly a settler on Massapequas land before migrating to the UK. Although I have experienced my share of racism since entering this field, I am still coming from a privileged position as a non-Black, non-Indigenous migrant from the Global North; please take this into consideration when reading this blog post.

References

Aitchison, K., German, P., and Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2021) Profiling the Profession 2020. Landward Research Ltd. Retrieved from https://profilingtheprofession.org.uk/

Almeida, T., Brodnock, E., and Lordan, G. (2021) Black women are missing in the UK’S top 1%. LSE Business Review. Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2021/03/03/black-women-are-missing-in-the-uks-top-1/

Brunache, P., Dadzie, B., Goodlett, K., Hampden, L., Khreisheh, A., Ngonadi, C., Parikh, D., and Plummer Sires, J. (2021). Contemporary Archaeology and Anti-Racism: A Manifesto from the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. European Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), pp. 294-298.

Dave, R. (2016) Archaeology must open up to become more diverse. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/may/23/archaeology-must-open-up-become-more-diverse

Gassam Asare, J. (2021) Why DEI and Anti-Racism Work Needs to Decentre Whiteness. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/02/15/why-dei-and-anti-racism-work-needs-to-decenter-whiteness/

Morris, C. (2020) Performative Allyship: What are the Signs and Why Leaders Get Exposed. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenmorris/2020/11/26/performative-allyship-what-are-the-signs-and-why-leaders-get-exposed/?sh=6574e3f222ec

Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results? TIME. Retrieved from https://time.com/5696943/diversity-business/

Poku, C. (2020) As straight as a circle – my journey navigating STEM as a queer black male. LGBTQ+ STEM. Retrieved from https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/as-straight-as-a-circle-my-journey-navigating-stem-as-a-black-queer-male/

Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2013) Archaeologists, the Whitest People I Know. Doug’s Archaeology. Retrieved from https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/archaeologists-the-whitest-people-i-know/

Sue, D.W. (2021) Microaggressions: Death by a Thousand Cuts. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microaggressions-death-by-a-thousand-cuts/

Taylor, A., Smith, M.D., and Shallish, L. (2020) (Re)Producing White Privilege through Disability Accommodations. Spark. Retrieved from https://medium.com/national-center-for-institutional-diversity/re-producing-white-privilege-through-disability-accommodations-4c16a746c0dc

Viglione, G. (2020) Racism and harassment are common in field research – scientists are speaking up. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02328-y#ref-CR1

White, B. and Draycott, C. (2020) Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem. Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/archaeology-diversity/


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Radical Potential of Making an Archaeology of Care Visible

What is “an archaeology of care”? Well, it can mean a few things. It has been used, for example, to describe a form of archaeological practice developed by Caraher and Rothaus (2017) in which care and support for the present day communities associated with the fieldwork is considered as important as the archaeological research itself. Perhaps more literally, however, it refers to the archaeological evidence for care in the past. More specifically, evidence for the care of sick and/or disabled individuals in the past. Although sickness and disability have long been observed in remains, Lorna Tilley (2015) has more recently developed an archaeology of care into its own formal framework within bioarchaeology, providing archaeologists with the tools necessary to investigate disability within the past, and thus examining the ways in which care may or may not have existed. This latter version of the archaeology of care will be the focus of this blog post.

With regards to archaeology, care work (as well as many disabilities) are often not visible within the record. To be honest, we can stretch this towards the present as well – not all disabilities are visible to others, of course, but care continues to be “invisibilised” as well (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, p. 66). In other words, it is not afforded the same consideration and respect as other forms of labour, nor is it given the needed resources or support by those with ability to do so.

However, we are beginning to see more of a narrative of care for sick and disabled individuals within the archaeological record. Unsurprisingly, this has been prevalent within bioarchaeological research of human remains (e.g., Tilley and Oxenham 2011, Bohling 2020, Kristjánsdóttir & Walser 2021), but has since incorporated other disciplines for a more interdisciplinary approach (e.g., Southwell-Wright 2013, Powell, Southwell-Wright, and Gowland 2016, Gilchrist 2020). Even within the zooarchaeological record, there have been instances of sick and disabled animals who most likely received some form of human care prior to death (e.g., MacKinnon 2010, Bendrey 2014, Thomas 2017).

An example of archaeological care: this puppy had a dental disease that would have required human support and treatment to have lived this long. (Image credit: Pütz Martin, Jürgen Vogel, Ralf Schmitz/LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

What I find so interesting and exciting with regards to developing the study of care in the archaeological record is how it reveals an element of everyday life that has been so fraught with difficulties today, from a lack of accessible healthcare to the continued inaccessibility of the world to others. I think it is often easy for many – even within archaeology – to assume a sort of “backwardness” to the past; that today, things are so improved in comparison, that everything is better in modern times. And to be fair, that’s true for a lot of things – we have made progressions in reducing forms of inequality and increasing quality of life. But there are also downsides as well – rampant capitalism and white supremacist ideologies (among others) are simultaneously creating further inequalities elsewhere, similarly decreasing quality of life for marginalised people. It is obviously more complicated and moves beyond “past bad, present good”.

But developing an archaeology of care helps to reveal that care of others was regularly practiced, and that not everyone ascribed to narrow definitions of worth that unfortunately are still perpetuated today; that your potential for labour did not equate to your value as a person, that you had to prove that you were worthy of care and support. I do not want to say that all instances of care in the archaeological record were purely altruistic, of course, and there are many scholars of disability studies who have provided critique of the ways in which archaeology interprets disability (e.g., Draycott 2015, Shuttleworth and Meekosha 2017, Evelyn-Wright 2019). However, I think there is something very beautiful there, that despite the technological and medical limitations of the past, people and animals were not simply abandoned outright. Sick and disabled people existed and were given care in the past – so what’s the excuse of those in power in the present?

I don’t think this is just limited to care, however; in the rare occasions that I’ve felt optimistic about archaeology, it has always been because I saw a hint of what could be radical potential, particularly in its ability to make things visible. Archaeology has the ability to reveal things that have long been obscured by those with power who desire for a continuation of a status quo – from women breaking modern gendered conceptions to vibrant communities of people who broke beyond today’s presumed gender and sexuality binaries. Of course, it goes without saying that archaeology has unfortunately also been the key tool in obscuring these pasts as well, weaponised by those who want to retain their positions of power.

I don’t want anyone to come away from this thinking that archaeology is the solution to these issues, of course. And perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who is in constant struggle between the absolute harm that archaeology has committed and still commits, and the potential that there is within the practice of archaeology to produce important and perhaps even radical and liberating knowledge from the past which can be applied to the present and future.

To end this blog post, I want to leave you with a quote from disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus, which initially inspired me to write this. In some ways, I’d like to imagine that Mia is echoing not just the thoughts of disabled people today, but of disabled people in the past, looking towards us and beyond…

“We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached […] Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live – past survival; past isolation.”

– Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence

References

Bendrey, R. (2014). Care in the community? Interpretations of a fractured goat bone from Neolithic Jarmo, Iraq. International journal of paleopathology7, pp. 33-37.

Bohling, S. N. (2020). Death, disability, and diversity: An investigation of physical impairment and differential mortuary treatment in Anglo-Saxon England. PhD Thesis, University of Bradford.

Caraher, W.R. and Rothaus R. (2017) An archaeology of care. On Second Thought: A Publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council (Spring 2006), pp. 50-51.

Draycott, J. (2015). Reconstructing the lived experience of disability in antiquity: a case study from Roman Egypt. Greece & Rome62(2), pp. 189-205.

Evelyn-Wright, S. (2019). Dis/ability in Roman Dorset: An Integrated Osteobiography Approach. In Bodies of Information. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, pp. 15-38.

Gilchrist, R. (2020) Spirit, mind and body: the archaeology of monastic healing. In Gilchrist, R. Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71-109

Kristjánsdóttir, S., & Walser, J. W. (2021). Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In Understanding Disability Throughout History (pp. 29-45). Routledge.

MacKinnon, M. (2010). “Sick as a dog”: zooarchaeological evidence for pet dog health and welfare in the Roman world. World Archaeology42(2), pp. 290–309.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, L.L. (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (2016) Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Shuttleworth, R., & Meekosha, H. (2017). Accommodating critical disability studies in bioarchaeology. In Bioarchaeology of Impairment and Disability. Cham: Springer, pp. 19-38.

Southwell-Wright, W. (2013). Past perspectives: What can archaeology offer disability studies?. In Emerging perspectives on disability studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 67-95.

Thomas, R. (2017) The zooarchaeology of animal ‘care’. In Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (eds.), Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 169-188.

Tilley, L. (2015) Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Switzerland: Springer.

Tilley, L., & Oxenham, M. F. (2011). Survival against the odds: Modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals. International Journal of Paleopathology1(1), pp. 35-42.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Spookiest Part are the Ears: Alex Versus the Plastic Halloween Skeletons (Again)

A collection of plastic Halloween decorations meant to look like skeletons of various animals, including: a spider, dogs, mice, a bat, birds, a dragon, an alligator, and a human.
This is Hell.

It’s that time of year again, folks – the spookiest time of the year, where the most frightful and terrifying creatures are out and about to scare us mortal beings…

I am, of course, talking about Halloween and, more specifically, the terrifying haunted beings which are the inaccurate animal skeletons that are sold at every Spirit Halloween in the United States (and elsewhere, if you’re…well, elsewhere).

And yes, this is something I’m apparently fixated on, but frankly if you spent most of your adult life becoming an expert at animal osteology, you too would be spooked by the amount of wildly inaccurate skeletons being sold to the general public – and let’s be honest, it’s getting worse because you’re telling me they’re now selling “skeleton” bugs too?! What’s next? Skeletons of invertebrates?!

Oh wait, they do that already…

A plastic "skeleton" octopus
Octopuses are invertebrates…and yet.

Anyway, instead of ranting just about how much these harmless plastic figures infuriate me, I figured this could make for a good teaching moment about ears and why on earth these abominations have them.

Three plastic Halloween skeletons that are also inaccurate: from left to right, a skeleton dog, a skeleton mouse, and a skeleton cat.
Just a small selection of these horrible plastic creatures with their horrible plastic ears…

So, let’s start off with the obvious: skeletons do not have ears. At least, not in the way we think of them. What we normally identify as ears are, for the most part, just cartilage with skin over them – that’s why they’re so bendy and flexible! That’s not to say that we don’t have any specific bones associated with ears, however – what is known as the “middle ear” in mammals is actually made of three small bones, or ossicles: the malleus, incus, and stapes (Standring 2015, p. 607). It also isn’t just mammals with these as well – bony fishes have otoliths to help with both hearing and movement (Schulz-Mirbach et al. 2019, p. 457), birds have an ossicle called the columella auris, and reptiles just have the stapes ossicle (Anthwal et al. 2013, p. 147).

Okay, we have now established with science that these skeletons are inaccurate – so then, what’s the explanation for why they’re designed like this? Obviously the skeletons aren’t 1:1 replicas, but in some instances they’re close enough to the real thing that it is clearly feasible for designers to just…make them accurate. Why the need for the ridiculousness? Why the ears?!

It’s most likely due to the human brain and its ability to recognise and identify things. You see, the human brain has a knack for using patterns to understand and gather information about something that is being viewed. In identifying other humans or animals, this often requires specific sensory cues such as a face: eyes, nose, mouth, etc. It’s this mechanism that also allows humans to identify face-like features in inanimate objects (Palmer and Clifford 2020, p. 1001). In addition, research has shown that the human brain also tends to visualise a “skeleton” of objects and animals in order to further recognise them – this seems to help humans judge the similarity between things and comprehend more unusual shapes (Ayzenberg and Lourenco 2019). With regards to animals, the human brain also breaks down a creature into specific properties to help with recognition – for example, the brain may use “fluffy” as an identifying property of a dog to identify that it is, indeed, a dog (Hebart et al. 2020).

So yes, in retrospect it makes sense why these decorations are designed like this. For nerds like me, years of training has allowed me to identify bones down to itty bitty fragments (on a good day, perhaps), so I am utterly repelled by these skeletons. But for the general public, things such as non-existent bone ears help them recognise the animal that is supposed to be represented with these plastic decorations. And this conclusion could probably be extended to human bones as well, specifically the most famous one of all: the femur bone.

That all said…I still hate them. Happy Halloween, folks.

References

Anthwal, N., Joshi, L., Tucker, A.S. (2013) Evolution of the mammalian middle ear and jaw: adaptations and novel structures. Journal of Anatomy 222, pp. 147-160.

Ayzenberg, V. and Lourenco, S.F. (2019) Skeletal descriptions of shape provide unique perceptual information for object recognition. Scientific Reports 9.

Hebart, M.N., Zheng, C.Y., Pereira, F., and Baker, C.I. (2020) Revealing the multidimensional mental representations of natural objects underlying human similarity judgements. Nature Human Behaviour 4, pp. 1173-1185.

Palmer, C.J. and Clifford, C.W.G. (2020) Face Pareidolia Recruits Mechanisms for Detecting Human Social Attention. Psychological Science 31(8), pp. 1001-1012.

Schulz-Mirbach, T., Ladich, F., Plath, M., and Heß, M. (2019) Enigmatic ear stones: what we know about the functional role and evolution of fish otoliths. Biological Reviews 94, pp. 457-482.

Standring, S. (2015). Gray’s Anatomy E-Book: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Archaeology of Memories and Mementos: An Archaeologist’s Review of “I Am Dead”

Please note that this blog post contains spoilers for the game “I Am Dead”.

One of the opening images for the game, and arguably one of my favourite death-adjacent topics to explore via fiction – what will your legacy be after you die?

So, one of the things I was most excited to get to post-PhD was my ever-increasing backlog of video games (damn you, Nintendo Switch sales!), and I was particularly excited about tackling the long list of indie games. One of these was, of course, the subject of this blog post: I Am Dead, a game made by Hollow Grounds and originally released in 2020. I had known that it was, by all accounts, one of those cute little indie games with a fun “hidden item”-type of puzzle mechanic.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was secretly one of the best archaeology games I’ve ever played!

Not to get too sentimental but this game really touched a lot of my perhaps more overly-optimistic viewpoints regarding archaeology – the tangibility of history and past experience!

The game is centered on Morris Lupton, a recently deceased inhabitant of the fictional island town of Shelmerston and previously the curator of the local museum. He is tasked with finding a new guardian for the town in order to stop its imminent destruction by a long-dormant volcano. To do this, Morris must travel around the town and invoke its local spirits by finding items hidden away connected to various memories of the deceased held by their still-living friends and family.  

It’s a very sweet and short game that really touches upon the idea of legacy – both in what we leave behind in our work and passions, as well as within our interpersonal relationships. This is further emphasised in where the game takes place – we do not join Morris right after death, but some time later. He is quite content with his afterlife, and much more concerned with the fate of the living who still remain in Shelmerston. But Morris also gets the unique opportunity to see how much of a difference he has made as the island’s lone curator, particularly in the way in which his work has helped shaped the memory of the island itself.

One of my favourite moments of connection within the game – revisiting the memory of a prehistoric person’s birth, and also finding the very artefact used during this. Would we have known how it was truly used?

So, yes, there is an obvious archaeology component here with the museum, particularly with the final level which is split between the exhibitions of the local museum and Prehistoric Shelmerston. But what I find more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of memory here, particularly the way in which memory interacts with material culture.

The archaeology of memory isn’t a new concept, with a variety of sub-types that have been thoroughly discussed in previous literature; this includes collective memory, public memory, and social memory (Van Dyke 2019, p. 208-209). But what is perhaps closer to what is being illustrated in this gameplay is the idea of “problematic stuff” (Buster 2021a and 2021b), which describes the sort of everyday “mundane” object that is ultimately the focus of much emotion and sentimentality. Buster originally explored this idea through discussions with healthcare professionals and end-of-life caregivers as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, as it became apparent that many people placed particular emphasis on the material objects that were left behind by the deceased. When viewed from a more archaeological perspective, this concept sheds a different light on some of the artefacts that are often found in what may seem to be “random” places, particularly within the Iron Age of Britain. Funerary traditions during this period of time continue to be difficult to determine due to the “invisibility” of the dead within the archaeological record (Harding 2016). And yet many Iron Age sites exhibit deposits of rather mundane items. Perhaps we have been missing part of the puzzle by overlooking these objects, which may be representative of personal objects that, unbeknownst to modern day archaeologists, embody many memories and emotions.

I Am Dead can be seen as a demonstration of the power of memory, as well as the ways in which memory become embodied into these “problematic stuff” – we see first-hand how these random objects become important through association of past events and interactions by the living. What to us is just a lost glove, or a buried box of beer, or a badge, are to others memories of finding a beloved treasure, or teenage antics, or the start of a beautiful friendship. It asks us, as archaeologists, to consider the things – that perhaps seem so small at first glance – that are inaccessible to us in the present day, but may transform rubbish into something much more meaningful and important.

You can buy I Am Dead now for the Nintendo Switch or for PC via Steam.

References

Buster, L. (2021a) ‘Problematic Stuff’: Death, Memory, and the Interpretation of Cached Objects. Antiquity 95(382), pp. 973-985.

Buster, L. (2021b) Why Couldn’t Iron Age People Throw Some Stuff Away? Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/iron-age-britain-houses/

Harding, D.W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.

Van Dyke, R.M. (2019) Archaeology and Social Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 48, pp. 207-225.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Standing on the Shoulders of Animals: Applying Zooarchaeological Approaches to Data in Digital Archaeology

Note: This blog post is adapted from an orphaned journal paper I started writing back in 2017 – as such, some of it may be out of date, but I think the point still stands regarding the potential of adapting zooarchaeological approaches and attitudes to datasets within digital archaeologies.

The Dynamic Imagine Engine user interface from the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) (Photo Credit: Betts et al. 2011)

Zooarchaeology as a discipline has always held a longstanding association with the generation of large amounts of data. In its earliest iteration,  zooarchaeological data sets were often relegated to the appendices of archaeological reports, sometimes referred to as “laundry lists” (Lyman 2015). Over the past few decades, zooarchaeology has developed into a proper discipline with its own individual methodological approaches to understanding the archaeological record and particular frameworks that sufficiently utilise animal remains to interpret our collective past. Throughout this process of expansion and development, the cultivation and management of data remained a key aspect of zooarchaeological methodology.

As digital archaeology and heritage developed into its own formidable area of study, zooarchaeology found success in applying these new digital pedagogies to zooarchaeological data. Projects with this focus include digitising references and measurements, to developing new methods of creating and archiving meta-data for future use. Although zooarchaeologists have largely adapted digital approaches to data, there has been comparatively little engagement of zooarchaeological methodology by digital archaeologists. This is unfortunate, but understandable – digital archaeologists may not initially see the potential in zooarchaeological pedagogies due to the narrow focus on faunal remains in our discipline; however, I would argue that there is much within zooarchaeology that can be extrapolated and applied as methods for cultivating, managing, reusing, and repurposing data. Perhaps by examining zooarchaeology not just as the study of archaeofaunal remains, but also the study and management of data, the practicality of zooarchaeological methods for digital application will become more apparent.

Zooarchaeology has arguably always been a data-focused discipline at heart. Prior to becoming a full-fledged discipline, early zooarchaeological “analysis” consisted of quantifying faunal remains found during excavation into pages and pages of datasets found in the appendices of site reports. Eventually, conversations about zooarchaeological data changed from “why should we quantify these remains” to “how should we quantify these remains”; this ultimately led to the creation of unique quantitative approaches such as NISP (number of identified specimens), MNI (minimum number of individuals), and MNE (minimum number of elements), although there is still some debate over which method is best for quantification (O’Connor 2000: 55-57; Steele 2015).

Probably one of the most important developments in zooarchaeological methodology has been biometry, or analysis focused on the bone measurements of fauna (Albarella 2002). Biometrics became part of the structural frameworks of many species identification methods (von den Driesch 1976; Hillson 1992) and would also become a huge influence on how zooarchaeologists would further cultivate data based on available material, regardless of the level of preservation and wholeness.

As zooarchaeology continued to transform and progress, attention moved from the generation and collection of data to finding new ways to utilise this data. Much of this work has only been possible due to the ability to share these datasets both within the discipline and outside of it – collaborative research across zooarchaeology, biology, and zoology has often led to the development of many valuable theories and frameworks for analysing archaeofauna.

There are numerous resources for bone identification as the result of various collaborative efforts between zooarchaeologists, biologists, and osteologists in an attempt to further digitise zooarchaeological data (including biometric measurements and reference images) in both meta-data and 2D/3D modelled forms (Fitzpatrick 2018). One of the largest and most ambitious projects in digital zooarchaeology at the moment is the National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). This collaborative project between Historic England and the University of York sets out to create a database of zooarchaeological reference collections and associated metadata, including contact information, access policies, and range of species available – this allows zooarchaeologists to quickly locate collections suited to their needs and learn exactly how best to gain access from the curators (Fairnell and Orton 2016; Fairnell and Orton 2017).

Given the high level of engagement that zooarchaeology has with data and data management just by the nature of its discipline, it is surprising to see that there has been little cross-pollination of ideas between digital archaeologists and zooarchaeologists. There is an arguable wealth of information that can be derived from zooarchaeological approaches to the cultivation, management, and curation of data that may be applicable to digital scholarship in archaeology, particularly with regards to standardisation and the creation of reference resources.

If we examine zooarchaeology as a discipline of collaboration through data, feasible applications in digital archaeologies may become more apparent. Many zooarchaeological projects, like the NZRR, place emphasis on accessibility – that reference data must be open access for all and that through collaborative work, the access to various reference data can be extended greatly. This concept has already evolved into a larger movement within archaeology as a whole, with many Open Access platforms now available for archiving various categories of archaeological data (Steele 2015). In addition, previous zooarchaeological work, specifically those that utilised archival data in collaborative projects, have also highlighted a crucial part of accessibility that must be considered: the need for standardisation. In the case of zooarchaeology, this refers to having a shared set of terminology and recording techniques so that data integration and data sharing can be accurate and precise (Atici et al. 2012). By allowing zooarchaeological data to be open access and standardised in a way that is understandable to others, the discipline has been able to further develop methods to extrapolate more use from obtained data – for example, by utilising datasets to develop broader interpretations and patterns across specific environments and regions.

By looking at the discipline and work of zooarchaeology not just as a study of archaeofauna, but also of cultivating and managing large amounts of data, we can see that there is a wealth of possibilities for application of certain methodologies to digital archaeology. There is also clearly a case for more emphasis on improving archival processes and accessibility to primary data based on the zooarchaeological tendency for data reuse.

Of course, this is all mostly theoretical at this point – what are the actual practicalities of applying zooarchaeological approaches to digital archaeologies? Digital archaeologists will almost certainly run into similar issues that zooarchaeologists face when dealing with archival data: mistakes that may need correction, certain terminologies that may be ultimately untranslatable, etc. (Jones and Gabe 2015). Some fine-tuning of the methodology will always be necessary – for example, following meta-analysis of archival collections from New Mexico, Jones and Gabe (2015) found that biases in the recording and curating processes resulted in errors once they were incorporated into the larger datasets. Similar to Lau and Whitcher Kansa (2018), they suggest that transparency in future work – i.e. acknowledging possible biases in site reports, fully detailing methodologies and processes – would be helpful; otherwise reconciliation of certain collections may become impossible.

There is also the fact that applying zooarchaeological methods to digital archaeologies will not always be a one-to-one trade-off; not all data generated from digital scholarship will be able to be recorded and/or quantified using the same methods that work best for archaeofauna. Again, this will have to be a case-by-case situation in which digital archaeologists determine what works best for their data – this paper is merely using zooarchaeological methodology as an example of how interdisciplinary processes can be used in conjunction with digital datasets, after all.

The increasing interest in digital zooarchaeology could imply that more collaboration between disciplines is on the horizon, particularly in the ways in which we can access and utilise reference material not just in our physical reality, but also in virtual reality (Means 2014; Eve 2017; Maschner et al. 2017). By expanding our view of methodological processes into considering other disciplines within archaeology, it is almost guaranteed that the future will constantly bring us new and even more innovative approaches to archaeological data.

References

Albarella, U. (2002) ‘Size Matters’: How and Why Biometry is Still Important in Zooarchaeology. In Dobney, K. and O’connor, T. (editors) Bones and the Man: Studies in Honour of Don Brothwell.   Oxford: Oxbow Books. 51-62.

Atici, L., Whitcher Kansa, S., Lev-Tov, J. and Kansa, E. C. (2012) Other People’s Data: A Demonstration of the Imperative of Publishing Primary Data. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20, 663-681.

Betts, M.W. et al. (2011) Virtual zooarchaeology: building a web-based reference collection of northern vertebrates for archaeofaunal research and education. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4), p. 755e1-755e9.

Eve, S. (2017) The ARtefactKit – Heritage Jam 2017 Winner. Dead Men’s Eyes. http://www.dead-mens-eyes.org/the-artefactkit-heritage-jam-2017-winner/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2016) Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/heritage-science/Building-a-National-Zooarchaeological-Reference-Resource/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2017) National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/nzrr_he_2017/

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The World Wide Reference Collection: Zooarchaeological Twitter and the Case for an International Zooarchaeological Database. In Computer Applications in Archaeology Twitter Conference. 

Hillson, S. (1992) Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification. London: Institute of Archaeology.

Jones, E. L. and Gabe, C. (2015) The Promise and Peril of Older Collections: Meta-Analyses and the Zooarchaeology of Late Prehistoric/Early Historic New Mexico. Open Quarternary 1 (6), 1-13.

Lyman, R. L. (2015) The History of “Laundry Lists” in North American Zooarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39, 42-50.

Maschner, H., Betts, M. and Schou, C. (2017) Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project.

Means, B. K. (2014) Virtual Curation and Virtual Collaboration. In Rocks-Macqueen, D. and Webster, C. (editors) Blogging Archaeology.    Landward Research Ltd. 121-144.

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Steele, T. E. (2015) The Contributions of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: the Past and Future of Zooarchaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 56, 168-176.

von den Driesch, A. (1976) A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites. Harvard: Peabody Museum Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Do My PhD Corrections

For the record, I didn’t actually submit my corrected thesis with that title but I might has well have!

A little over nine months ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis with major corrections. And then, just a month ago today, I submitted my corrections.

A total of 15,414 additional words and 70 pages over what I’d love to say was a six month period…but due to procrastination? More like a two month period. Oops.

I will say that the support I received during my corrections period was great – my supervisors were always there to discuss changes, and to provide support if I felt as though a suggestion did not entirely fit with my vision for the thesis (and to tell me when I was getting a bit too carried away as well!). And, similar to my actual viva, my external examiners were extremely gracious with their time and advice – they allowed me to ask for clarification, they heard my justifications for modifying different aspects of the thesis, and they would also give general support for my well-being, suggesting approaches to handling the corrections in a way that wouldn’t stress me out too much.

So then…why did it take me so damn long to do the corrections?

Well…a couple of things: Stress. Fear. The real world (remember the pandemic that’s still kinda happening? stuff like that).

When I first got the official papers with all of the comments from my external examiners (mind you, I also knew the general gist of these comments already as we obviously discussed them at the end of my viva), it felt like someone hit me with a brick. Maybe this is more to do with my general lack of self-confidence, but anytime I get comments on something I’ve made, it’s hard not to take them personally! So seeing the comments written out, single-spaced and taking up about three pages? I felt sick. And so I avoided them, using a form of stress-fuelled procrastination to do literally anything else besides my corrections. Finally, I got a reality check in the form of an email from my supervisors, and soon enough, I was working on my corrections in a guilt-fuelled rush. By that point, I was able to actually reread the comments and fully digest them, and you know what? They weren’t mean, or aggressive, or overtly critical like I somehow managed to believe. In fact, they were written in a kind and supportive tone, emphasising that these comments were meant to add to my already good work, to fully flesh out my ideas in a way that actually showcases my abilities. Realising this helped me maintain a somewhat healthy work ethic, knowing that this was less about some weird form of “repentance” for my academic sin of misspelling the word “cave” on page 230 – this was about that finally push, supported by a team of more senior academics, from “student” to “expert”. Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest of labours, but I’m proud of the result. Not only did I (most likely?) fix my weird misspellings, but I also ended up having several new realisations about my work, further developing my conclusions in a way that I think has elevated my original findings into something better than before. But also, I had a lot of misspellings…what a betrayal from Spellcheck, am I right?

To end this blog post, I want to provide some completely unasked for advice for those of you in the corrections process right now:

  1. You’re Not Alone. I had this ridiculous notion that the corrections period was supposed to be this intense, solidarity process in which I reflected on my faults and tried to fix them for weeks on end. Yeah, that’s not actually how this is supposed to work, surprisingly enough! You’re still “allowed” to discuss with your supervisors as well as, depending on your particular university’s policies, your external examiners as well. In some cases this can even include sending drafted parts to your examiners for feedback (although again, check with both your examiners as well as your university’s policies). Even if your corrections aren’t necessary too extensive, it is probably worth maintaining some form of communication with everyone, especially as you will probably jump into working on publications after the corrections are finished, and often times the corrections themselves can provide better insight into what you might decide to develop further.
  2. This Should Be Collaborative. This is something I said regarding the viva as well, but despite having a reputation for being a particularly combative or frustrating part of the PhD process…it actually shouldn’t be! Obviously this is unfortunately not the case for everyone, but PhDs should be a period of collaboration – not only are you adding to your particular field, but you’re also gaining experience and improving your own skills. No one should be setting you up to fail! With that in mind, the corrections should be similar – it is about improvement. The goal should not be “how do I perfect this thesis” but instead, “how can I improve this in a way that shows off everything I have learned and worked for?” And, following the first point, your supervisors (and potentially examiners as well) should also be working with you under that same mindset.
  3. But Don’t Be Afraid to Disagree! That said, collaboration isn’t just about saying “yes” all the time! One of the most important things I learned was that at this point in my career, I can actually disagree with the comments. Unlike high school (where most disagreements with a grade resulted in being ignored or, at worst, further deductions…yikes), you are now at the point of expertise where your input matters – so use it! Obviously this is not to say that you can ignore all of your corrections and say you know better (I wish!), but you ultimately know your work best at this point. For me, a lot of my disagreements had to do with focus and flow, so I ended up placing new additions in a different section than the one that was suggested. So long as you can justify it, you should be good – but again, talk to your supervisors/examiners as well. You may know your work best, but they may have additional advice to help you truly demonstrate that.
  4. Record. EVERYTHING. No, not in The Room way. But another great piece of advice I got early was to keep track of the actual changes I made by annotating a copy of the comments form. Not only does this showcase how much progress you’ve made (a huge thing for someone like me who needs to have that bit of encouragement!), but it also lets you pinpoint to the examiners where you’ve made changes, and provide justification or clarification if you decide to modify one of their suggestions or ignore it outright.
  5. This Is Not a Punishment. I already touched upon this, but it bears repeating: this is not a punishment! Technically speaking, you’ve passed and – unless you manage to do something drastic to your thesis – you’re likely to end up with a degree after your corrections are done, regardless of whether they’re “minor” or “major”. But academia, being the way it is, loves to foster a toxic atmosphere of competitiveness and aggression (which frankly isn’t helped by the fact there are loads of academics and Reviewer #2’s that perpetuate that sort of toxicity), so it’s understandable why you may feel like you’re being punished or unduly criticised. Ultimately, this is about making you the best you can be – preparing you for not only publication but also for post-postgraduate life. Regardless of the stress, doing the corrections helped me recognise the actual merits of my work – something I had yet to really realise. For me, corrections weren’t about taking an eraser to my mistakes, but providing further supports and structures to the foundation which was my work, and preparing myself to build upwards from there.

Corrections can be scary, but they’re there to help you. You just gotta…you know…actually do them. At some point. Eventually.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

On Liminality: Space, Time, and Identities

The following is the text from a talk I gave during the ‘Spring into Science: Queer Representation in Researchseminar series at the University of Oxford. I haven’t really talked much about being a queer archaeologist and as someone who often uses self-reflection to spur on discussion, I feel like I need to rectify this. Thanks again to the Department of Biology’s LGBTQ+ Group at the University of Oxford for inviting me to start off their seminar series! You can watch the recording of the talk here.

Imagine that you’re entering a cave on a sunny, warm summer day. There is a swift, and distinct, change in the temperature as you walk into the darkness – a cold, dampness that cuts through to the bone. The lack of internal light immediately plunges you into darkness as you journey further into the cave, and the inherent stillness and silence means any noise you make is amplified twofold. If the Underworld exists, this is likely where it would be situated. And yet, if you simply turn around to face the entrance of the cave, you are greeted by a completely different setting; you can see the bright sun, the clear blue skies. By walking back to the start, you can already feel the warm air, hear the natural noises that one associates with the outdoors. But stop right in the middle, between the entrance of the cave and its deeper chambers – here, you’re in between what can only be described as two completely different worlds.

This is a liminal space – and its where I exist, as a researcher and as a queer, mixed woman.

I think I knew that I was queer quite early in my life – one of my first crushes on a girl was probably at some point in primary school, and my upbringing in theatre and dance circles introduced me to gay culture very early in my life. But despite this, I really struggled in a comfortable identifier for the way I felt; by the end of high school, I think I may have told one or two people that I was probably bisexual, but otherwise I kept to myself. It has only been recently that I felt confident enough to claim “queer” as an identity, but I also never really “came out of the closet”; it was more like a quiet shuffle into the world. The people who knew me knew, and that was always enough.

To be fair, personal identity has always been difficult for me to parse – although I’m mixed race, growing up in a predominately white town on Long Island, New York meant that I was always read as completely Asian, or at the very least, non-white. Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent trying to assimilate into the whiteness that surrounded me, and thus I forgo much of my cultural upbringing in exchange for acceptance. And yet, there was never true acceptance among my white peers – I continued to bear the brunt of racist jokes and harassment from others, regardless of how much white eyeliner I used to make my eyes appear “less Asian”. So perhaps it is ultimately unsurprising that this disconnect would become further entrenched into my psyche and disrupt my understanding of other aspects of my identity.

It wasn’t until I began my PhD research (Fitzpatrick 2020) that I began to understand and confront my multiple identity crises. My project was centred around the Covesea Caves situated on the coast of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland. Archaeological excavations within these caves have revealed what has been interpreted as a later prehistoric mortuary complex, where intricate funerary rites were likely performed among and with the dead. This was further complicated by the presence of both human and animal remains, suggesting that ritual activity was also occurring, perhaps connected to the funerary practices of these later prehistoric peoples. As a trained zooarchaeologist, my role in this research was to examine the faunal remains from the Covesea Caves and decipher their relevance to human activities within the caves; this would be determined through a combined approach of focused taphonomic investigation as well as comparative analysis with the human remains from the same sites. The resulting interpretation revealed a complex narrative, in which the Covesea Caves were an importance space for ritual and funerary activities from as early as the Neolithic to as late as the Post-Medieval Period.

The Covesea Caves were considered to be liminal spaces, potentially as an area in between the living world and the world of the dead (Brück 1995, Brück 2006, p. 302). This was established using the definition by van Gennep (1960, p. 21), in which he describes liminality as a transitional state between separation from one world, and incorporation into a new one. This definition was particularly useful with regards to the funerary character of the Covesea Caves, as rites for the dead were often used as a means of transforming the body from something “unclean” into something “purified” for transport into the underworld (Parker Pearson 1993, p. 204).

What made the Covesea Caves so unique, even among other liminal spaces, was how its liminality was not defined to just spatiality; they were also spaces of temporal liminality, in that the archaeological record revealed significant, intentional intermixing of material from different periods by human visitors (including modern day visitors, who often left behind items upon a makeshift “altar” in the Sculptor’s Cave). Even the overall characteristic of the caves can be considered liminal, in that it was somewhere between a place of ritual activity and the more mundane, domestic behaviours of later prehistoric life; this is something that has been noted by other archaeologists, particularly Richard Bradley (2005), as something which cannot be so neatly described as one or the other. Ritual practices were part of the domestic sphere during this time, and as such we find these liminal spaces in which both characteristics are present.

The intersections of liminal identities within the Covesea Caves resonated with me, as a person of similarly intersecting identities. As I continued my researched and developed my interpretation, I was able to see how difficult it was to place the sites into any particular classification – were they simply funerary sites? Or ritual sites? Further analysis of faunal bone from the Covesea Caves further complicated my initial assumptions – if use extended to the Post-Medieval Period, was this still a “later prehistoric” site? Given the evidence of bone modification and potential feasting activity, are the caves actually more domestic in character than originally assumed? What appeared to be contradictions were actually part of a complicated identity, one that reflects the realities and messiness inherent in life. And thus, I saw myself in these caves, and realised that I was also complicated and messy – and I embraced this. For me, this was embracing queerness as a form of liminality.

I should note that I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) to use liminality as a framework for identity, particularly in queer theory. In fact, liminality is arguably a vital component of queer theory; as March (2021, p. 455) describes it, liminality “brings together queer ways of thinking through unboundedness, spillage, fluidity, multiplicity, and processes of contingent, non-linear becoming, as well as the relations of power and regulation that seek their stability or closure”. Liminality has been used to situate discussions of sexualities (e.g., Whitney 2001), queer identities (e.g. Walsbergerová 2017), intercommunal marginalisation (e.g. Gorman-Murray 2013), and the intersections of queerness with other modalities (e.g. Punt 2008, Sinopoulos-Lloyd 2017). But above all, liminality is a form of resistance “to assimilation, essentialism, privacy, and heteronormativity” (LeMaster 2011).

Embracing the liminality of myself as allowed me to embrace queerness as my main identifier – sure, if you asked me to give it a proper name, I’d say that I’m most aligned with pansexuality. But being able to identify as queer, in all that the word entails, has been much more freeing. In living through queerness and the liminal spaces that encompass the rest of my life (and, in this case, research), I see boundless potential for further reconciliation with the past and growth for the future.

References

Bradley, R. (2005) Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe.  Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.

Brück, J. (1995) ‘A Place for the Dead: the Role of Human Remains in Late Bronze Age Britain’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 61, pp. 245–277.

Brück, J. (2006) ‘Fragmentation, Personhood, and the Social Construction of Technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(3), pp. 297–315.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) ‘Ritual and Funerary Rites in Later Prehistoric Scotland: An Analysis of Faunal Assemblages from the Covesea Caves’. PhD thesis, University of Bradford, Bradford.

van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Gorman-Murray, A. (2013) Liminal Subjects, Marginal Spaces and Material Legacies: Older Gay Men, Home and Belonging. In Y Taylor and M Addison (eds) Queer Presences and Absences: Genders and Sexualities in the Social Sciences. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LeMaster, B. (2011) Queering Imag(in)ing: Liminality as Resistance in Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 8(2), p. 103-123.

March, L. (2021) Queer and Trans* Geographies of Liminality: A Literature Review. Progress in Human Geography 45(3), p. 455-471.

Parker Pearson, M. (1993) ‘The Powerful Dead: Archaeological Relationships between the Living and the Dead’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 3(2), pp. 203–229.

Punt, J. (2008) Intersections in Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory, and Hermeneutical Spin-Offs. The Bible and Critical Theory 4(2), p. 24.1 – 24.16.

Sinopoulos-Lloyd, P.A. (2017) Queer Futurism: Denizens of Liminality. Queer Nature. https://www.queernature.org/queer-futurism-denizens-of-liminality

Walsbergerová, T. (2017) Labels and Beyond: On Queer Liminality and Fuzzy Edges of Identification. Re: Views. http://reviewsmagazine.net/labels-and-beyond-on-queer-liminality-and-fuzzy-edges-of-identification/

Whitney, E. (2001) Cyborgs Among Us: Performing Liminal States of Sexuality. Journal of Bisexuality 2(2-3), p. 109-128.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

“He Tampered in God’s Domain” – Looking at the Mix-and-Match Fossil Trope

What is it with fossilised remains and the desire to defy the laws of nature? No, I’m not talking about reviving extinct species (well, not exactly), but of the Mix-and-Match trope that sometimes gets applied to fossils…and then often gets revived into some sort of strange creature. For example, let’s take a look at perhaps the biggest palaeontological film franchise right now: although it was in the first Jurassic Park (1993) where Dr. Ian Malcom gave us an always relevant line on science and ethics (“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”), it wasn’t until Jurassic World that those scientists finally decided to start mix-and-matching their own competition for the Tyrannosaurus Rex with the gene-spliced Indominus Rex.

If its a trope, it must also be a meme, right?

But where else do we see this trope? Oddly enough, we can also see examples in two of the biggest games to come out of the last few years from two of the biggest video game franchises: Animal Crossing and Pokémon. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020), the Player can find fossils randomly buried around their island each day. These can either be sold, donated to the local museum, or kept by the Player as part of their own island décor. It should be noted that most fossils only represent part of a larger skeleton – so you may find the torso of an Ankylosaurus one day and the tail of a Spinosaurus the next. Unsurprisingly, this has led many players to showcase their own mix-and-match creations using their segments, creating new prehistoric megafauna with some very interesting proportions (see the image above).

In Pokémon Sword and Shield (2019), you can find four different types of fossils: a bird, a fish, a drake, and a dinosaur. Unlike previous games, where you could revive a fossil into a specific Pokémon, you could literally mix and match fossils to create four different Pokémon: Dracozolt (Bird/Drake), Dracovish (Fish/Drake), Artozolt (Dino/Bird), and Arctovish (Dino/Fish). Each one is as bizarre-looking as the next, clearly depicting four different Pokémon spliced together in ill-fitting ways. To be honest, we could also apply this trope to the rest of the fossil Pokémon – although not to the same extent as in Sword and Shield, many of the prehistoric creatures are actually mash-ups of real-life extinct animals. For example, Tyrunt may be mostly based on the Tyrannosaurus, but the crests above their eyes are also similar to the Gorgosaurus.

A chart from Bulbapedia explaining the various Sword and Shield fossil combinations

And while this is a trope that appears in fiction, there is also some instances of it occurring in real life. One example is actually what inspired the appearance of the trope in Pokémon Sword and Shield; archaeologist Charles Dawson created his own “Missing Link” in 1912 by putting together a body with a variety of human and non-human remains (Hernandez 2019). The resulting body was named the “Piltdown Man”, and was only determined to be a hoax in 1953 (Webb 2016). Palaeontologists have also run into their very own “Frankenstein” dinosaur – the Chilesaurus was originally considered one based on the difficulties in placing it into the overall family tree of dinosaurs. It apparently had “the legs of an animal like a Brontosaurus, the hips of a Stegosaurus, and the arms and body of an animal like Tyrannosaurus Rex” (Ghosh 2017).

With this in mind, maybe we can see this trope as a commentary on both the extraordinary diversity of lifeforms in our world, as well as the ethics by which we look back at them?

or maybe we just all collectively like the unusual. Probably the latter.

References

Game Freak (2019) Pokémon Sword and Shield, video game, Nintendo Switch. Tokyo: The Pokémon Company.

Ghosh, P. (2017) ‘Frankenstein dinosaur’ mystery solved. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40890714

Hernandez, P. (2019) The Pokédex is Bullshit and I have the Dead Pokémon to Prove it. Polygon. Retrieved from https://www.polygon.com/2019/11/22/20977707/pokemon-sword-shield-fossil-dracozolt-arctozolt-dracovish-arctovish-pokedex-england-fake

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.

Spielberg, S. (1993) Jurassic Park, film, Universal Pictures.

Trevorrow, C. (2015) Jurassic World, film, Universal Pictures.

Webb, J. (2016) Piltdown Review Points Decisive Finger at Forger Dawson. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37021144


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

A Sort of Urban Warfare: The Future Archaeology of Hostile Architecture

One of the reasons why I like speculative archaeology, or hypothetical archaeologies created in the future of our present, is that is allows us to look at current issues from a different perspective. In particular, I enjoy speculating on how specific iconography and design choices might be interpreted – for many of us, one of the first archaeological exercises you do in college is to speculate how a coin would be seen by future archaeologists, and I guess I never outgrew that. Let’s move beyond the fanciful interpretation of how George Washington’s face on the quarter could be seen as worship and idolatry (actually, there’s something there…), and move towards something perhaps more urgent: hostile architecture and design.

Recently, the MTA in New York City was justifiably put on the spot for its blunt stance against unhoused people, which was exacerbated by the unveiling of more benches designed to deter people from hanging around too long – again, something which will disproportionately affect unhoused people.  This got me thinking about the hostile architecture and what it encapsulates about our current world. “Hostile architecture” refers to specific design features made to deter people from staying too long in public spaces. This includes incorporating spikes on flat surfaces, placing seats at uncomfortable angles, and including dividers to prevent people from laying down. Hostile architecture and design removes comfort and rest from public spaces, and often funnels those needs into commodities (Kim 2019) – if hostile architecture makes sitting for free in a courtyard an impossibility, would you then turn to being a customer of a nearby café just to sit down and relax?  And again, these design choices disproportionately affect certain groups of people: disabled people, unhoused people, and poor people. 

It is easy to imagine the sort of interpretations that future archaeologists will make of the more overtly hostile architecture – both designed to repel people, one can see how spikes on a windowsill in New York City can evoke the imagery of defensive systems used in the historic and prehistoric past, from sticks and stones which were used as Iron Age chevaux-de-frise  (Murphy 2018) to the stockades often used by colonial forces during military expeditions (Jayasena 2006). Hostile architecture also inspires its own adjacent archaeologies as well, with people creating their own spaces in response to this antagonism. Here, we can actually turn to work being done alongside communities of unhoused peoples, as archaeologists such as Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield in the United Kingdom, and Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch in the United States have demonstrated with their research (e.g. Kiddey and Schofield 2011, Zimmerman and Welch 2011).

Of course, it should be said that hostile architecture shouldn’t need this sort of roundabout form of reflection to be seen as “bad”, and that choosing to divest from these antagonistic designs should be based on empathy and respect for people regardless of their circumstance, rather than the imagined judgements of a far future archaeologist. Fortunately, there are many who continue to speak out against hostile architecture and protest there use – this includes people who have also taken things into their own hands and have removed these features themselves (Suliman 2018).  And maybe this is where archaeology can step in…after all, I’m pretty sure many of us have a mattock or two to spare.

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Hostile Architecture found on a Manhattan windowsill (Photo Credit: JL Jahn/Alamy)

To end this post, I’d like to promote some groups and organisations who are doing good work at providing mutual aid for unhoused people in the UK and the US. Please consider donating, and remember that unhoused people are also part of your communities, and deserve the same respect, dignity, and care that everyone else receives. 

Remora House DCWashington DC, United States

From the Heart PNW – Seattle, WA, United States

Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid – Dallas, TX, United States

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless – Chicago, IL, United States

Coalition on Homelessness – San Francisco, CA, United States

National Coalition for the Homeless – United States

Museum of Homelessness – United Kingdom

NRPF Network – United Kingdom

Homeless Network Scotland – Scotland

References

Jayasena, R.J. (2006) The Historical Archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company Fort in Sri Lanka. Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(1). pp. 111-128.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J. (2011) Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1). pp. 4-22.

Kim, E. (2019) A Field Guide to the ‘Weapons’ of Hostile Architecture in NYC. The Gothamist. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/a-field-guide-to-the-weapons-of-hostile-architecture-in-nyc

Murphy, K. (2018) The Atlantic Coast. Internet Archaeology  48.

Suliman, A. (2018) Public Hits Back at ‘Hostile Architecture’ in European Cities. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-cities-homelessness-idUSKCN1M419S

Zimmerman, L.J., and Welch, J. (2011) Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1), pp. 67-85.

 


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.