The Time: 10:30am, Friday 4th September 2016.
The Place: Lecture theatre E, Boyd Orr Building, Glasgow University.
Having downed a cup of tea and gobbled up some complimentary biscuits I stood in front of a steadily filling room of people after the mid-morning break. It was day number two of the European Association of Archaeologists conference, this year held in Glasgow, and the attendees ranged from undergraduate students to internationally renowned academics, as well as those members of the public so interested in archaeology that they willingly attended a Europe-wide conference in Scotland. This conference is attended by literally thousands of people every year and is broken down into hundreds of sessions, each containing many papers that could stretch from dawn till dusk.
My session, centred on the theme of memory and forgetting in archaeology, was one such session, and had already seen four excellent papers starting at 8am. I was not there to obsess over fragments for once, but rather to explore another passion of mine: that of time and memory in the Bronze Age. You may wonder how on earth one can possibly explore such abstract concepts in a society entirely through the material culture left behind, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. And for me, my way was through interpreting “Out-of-Time” Bronze Age metalwork.
Allow me to elaborate…
During my Masters year I began to notice a phenomenon in which Bronze Age metalwork was appearing in hoards that really shouldn’t be there. This was originally noticed for Iron Age sites and hoards containing Bronze Age objects that were already up to a thousand years old or more when they were deposited. Some of these hoards were such an accumulation of objects from different time periods that Dot Boughton (2013, 43) expressed it rather eloquently:
“It is as if we were to open our kitchen drawer to find John Lewis cutlery, Anglo-Saxon jewellery and everything in between.”
So I started exploring this for the Bronze Age and lo and behold, I was able to pick out similar features in which some of the objects were several hundred years old when deposited (hence why they are “out-of-time”), showing signs of differential treatment, and even curation.
This allowed me to offer interpretations about ideas of heirlooms and how people in the Bronze Age might have conceptualised their own past and used these objects in processes of ancestor reverence, active forgetting (e.g. through destruction of objects), and commemoration of place. The place in particular seems significant when considering these objects as the location is often linked with river valleys or coastlines, as well as hilltops or settlement boundaries, all of which may represent processes for managing the landscape in which people lived.
So this, in a nutshell, is what I had to deliver and where I stood now. Anxiously fiddling with the paper version of my presentation that I’d probably spent far too long writing and editing, waiting for that moment when the session organisers ushered silence and my voice was left to echo through the microphone and around the lecture theatre. In a previous post I pre-eminently described the conference experience as jumping through a hoop of fire with a bottomless pit of despair on the other side, and I wish I hadn’t, because standing up there that was all I could think of. And then I began talking…
Truth be told, I don’t remember a lot after that until there was a round of applause and I was staring at my final Powerpoint slide. Months of refining ideas, modifying discussion points, agonising over whether I would stick to time or how seriously my ideas would be taken, all over in twenty painless, ethereal minutes.
The true test, of course, was the subsequent discussion as a group and then on an individual basis with members of the congregation who wanted to pick my brains further. My worst fears were (fortunately) not realised, however, and the general reception seemed positive. I’ve no doubt there were those who were quietly held grievance with some of my speculations, but such is the nature of interpreting the theoretical aspects of prehistory. For the time being, I’m just pleased to have survived another academic hurdle – now someone take me back to the peace and quiet of a museum and my fragments!
End Note: This of course is only a brief overview of what I presented and study – anyone is interested in learning more, or discussing aspects further, please do get in contact. Various ways of pestering me can be found in the About Me section.
References: Boughton, D. 2013. ‘The strange case of the bronzes buried in the Vale of Wardour’ British Archaeology 129, 42-9.
Acknowledgements: My sincere thanks to Nick Wells, Joanna Pyzel and Catriona Gibson, the session organisers, for inviting me to give the paper and to have this opportunity to communicate my research.