It’s easy to feel relatively isolated when you’re doing a PhD. After all, you are studying a field so niche that no one has ever bothered to do it before, usually for good reason! And there’s only so many times your loving other half will feign interest in a topic that they begrudgingly have to engage with if they want your undivided attention (though I am thankful that Robyn does still do this!) Having another specialist around with whom you can express your research without having to explain the individual aspects is a rare thing. And it is for that reason that events like the Bronze Age Forum (or BAF) are so gratifying.
It was cold, rainy, windy, and nearly 100 people were gathered from across Europe in their damp clothes in a lecture theatre in Exeter for which the heating had been set too high. I was stood in front of them all, bracing myself to present, and I realised there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be at that moment. *start dramatic music here* This was a chance to make an impact, to communicate my research to a room full of Bronze Age specialists, to put my ideas out there in a way that would be understood, analysed, criticised, and ultimately applauded or outright rejected. *close dramatic music* Essentially, this was my opportunity to know whether what I was attempting was as completely mad as it sometimes feels.
My topic was my PhD methodology: a thrilling 15,000 word read compressed into a meagre twenty minutes. Much like the EAA conference, it was over as soon as it began. A round of applause, a quick thumbs-up from my supervisor, and side-stepping out of the way of the next presenter (the crazed axe-lady that is Dot Boughton), I was back in my seat eagerly awaiting the succeeding papers. Don’t worry – I don’t intend to review the BAF here, but the response I got, the papers I saw, and particularly the people I met, made this one of the most satisfying experiences of my PhD to date.
From the weekend, two moments are especially embedded in my memory, the first of which encouraged me to write this blog post. Walking through the streets of Exeter searching for a place to drink (a pastime that could unite even the most disparate group!), I was discussing the nature of the Forum with the lovely Cate Frieman (whose aptitude for juggling different projects astounds me!) She described the whole occasion very eloquently and sweetly: “It’s like one big group hug.” And it really is – the research presented over the weekend was not, in fact, the main thing I took away from it. It was the people I met and shared my time and thoughts with and that sense of community that actually makes what they do, and what I do, worthwhile.
The second moment was also in a pub, this time with a completely different group of Bronze Age people. Most of us were PhD or post-doc students, all of us were doing something completely different, and at least 5 different nationalities were represented. What we talked about, however, was not our research; it was cheese. Specifically whether English cheese was any good or not. (I think we concluded that English blue cheese and a particular Cornish cheese was, but please feel free to weigh in on this debate). The Bronze Age had brought us together, but it was cheese that was bonding us. Personally, I think any Europe-wide friendships that begin with Bronze Age and are sustained by cheese are probably going to go the distance, so it is to that group that I dedicate this blog post.
These two moments have particularly stuck with me for the simple fact that they remind me I am not alone in my specialist research. I might spend most of my time bleary-eyed from staring at metalwork, mumbling away to myself about things only I care about, and over-analysing the simplest everyday breakages (more on that later!) but it’s incredibly comforting to know that once every two years, there will be a Bronze Age group hug waiting for me.
Firstly I have to thank my supervisors Anthony Harding and Jo Bruck, both of whom are involved in the organisation of the Bronze Age Forum, and are probably responsible for my speaking at this conference! I also want to thank everyone I met at the Bronze Age Forum for making it such a great experience for me and for those involved in inspiring me to write this post. I really did enjoy our debate about cheese! Anyone who missed the Bronze Age Forum can catch a summary of it on the University of Exeter Archaeology blog page here