Sunday, August 31, 2008

Competing Images

I want to think that I am Wonder Woman, but I feel a bit more like the Mad Hatter. I am trying to collect all the bits I have written and tucked in virtual sock drawers and get them organized and version controlled. I used to do that for other people--that's how I earned my living before--I ought to be able to do it for myself.

Wish me luck.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Runty is the smallest of my tabby clan of farm cats. He started out the same size as the others and had the same food and medical treatments, but Runty has always been the most hyper of the cats. He has the same sort of Uriah Heep obsequiousness that his mother did--and the same quick right paw. Runty will come rushing into the house and then as quickly rush out again for no apparent reason.

Tonight he jumped onto the window sill of the office where I was working. Just a soft thunk on the window alerted me to his presence in the blackness just beyond the sill. His mother did the same thing when she needed me. There might be days at a time I would not see her, but she found me when she needed me. As soon as my usefulness to her was ended, she was off again. If you like cats, then you know better than to expect gratitude or doglike affection. I didn't. Gnomie sometimes smiled at me, but Runty never seems to smile.

Runty is never happy. After many years of watching them, I still understand very little about the inner workings of cats or people, but I recognize dithering. There's a little dither in all of us from time to time--going around in a circle til you discover your glasses already on your head or the car keys in your hand is a mild form. Formatting a page while you wait for the inspiration to put something in. Running away from your vocation.

A friend recently told me about a traveling salesman with whom he has become friends in the course of traveling the same path. This man, although a qualified chef, sells those little packets of food you see sitting on restaurant tables--ketchup or mustard or such. My friend said that the man is disappointed. Being good at something that you do not value--or think others value--would certainly be disappointing, but that retreat and that disappointment would be safe.

That kind of dithering is the most destructive. If I wrote the Unilever salesman into a story, I would have him thrown unexpectedly into a situation where he proved himself as a chef. And then --and now I am dithering--would he be transformed in an apotheosis and throw all his samples overboard and embrace his true vocation or would he pick up his sample case and follow his salesman path with even more bitterness than before? Perhaps having once been a chef, he might decide that his salesman life was a good one after all.

It may take courage to follow your vocation but my best decisions have come about not so much from courage as from fear of living in disappointment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pheasants in the Verge

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On the way home, I saw a pheasant on the farm road. It was a lady pheasant. She moved slowly into the tall grass, so we slowed to watch her. She had several chicks in the tall grass with her. I could hear them talking to each other and I even managed to catch sight of one. The tall grass looked like a mountain to his tiny self, but he was scrabbling over it, at momma's insistence, to answer the roll call. It was a great sight. I had not seen much of the pheasants since the males were strutting around making raucous calls. They sounded an awful lot like Saturday night drunks or football fans after cheering too long for the home crowd. I am glad all that strutting and squawking had some good result.

The farm cats often patrol these tall grasses on the edges of the farm road, so I hope Mme. Pheasant can keep her chicks safe.

For several days now, I have sat in the sunspot in the front garden under the careful observation of several Angus heifers. They were cheerfully using the hedge between the garden and the paddock as their salad bar. There did not seem to be any harm in it for the hedges, which needed trimming anyway, or for the heifers and their company was welcome.

Having seen them with their heads protruding through the hedges, it was not a big surprise to look out the living room window and see one of them grazing on the lawn, which needs cutting, too.

I went out the back door; my husband went out the front. She noticed us without much concern--like a student slacking off because the regular teacher has left the classroom. As soon as we showed up, she was easily persuaded back through the hedge. We found something to fill the gap til it can be properly repaired and checked that she was the only runaway.

One of her sisters is in the little paddock waiting for her blind date. Well, that is a metaphoric way of thinking about it. She is going to be artificially inseminated.

Sadly I will have to miss the event because I have an appointment in town. So as I was thinking about what to fix for a quick dinner, I thought to myself: pheasants in the verge; heifers in the front yard--an ordinary day on the farm.

The above photo is of ducks from New Zealand. I do not have my own photos of pheasants. The pheasant chick is about this same size and colouring. I liked the photo. Hope you do, too. Maybe I'll get some pheasants photos.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How Archaeologists Look at the Chicken and Egg Question

How you look at the which came first, the proverbial chicken or the egg conundrum, depends on your discipline. This post reveals the mysteries of how archaeologists look at the problem of which came first. This issue is important for archaeologists because often where something is relative to something else may the best (perhaps the only clue) to when it was. Knowing when, in turn, may reveal a lot about what it is and the other things people really want to know after spending hours digging in the dirt. So the where and the when--the chickens and the eggs-- are very important to archaeologists.

Last Saturday's workshop was designed to teach us how to properly sort the chicken and egg question in an archaeological way because the handful of amateurs gathered in Castle Hill Heritage Centre are supposed to be able to do a proper job of archaeology after the real archaeologists leave.

First Andy Heald, Managing Director, terrified us with such home truths as "archaeology is destructive." Once something is removed from a site without properly designating where it was or drawing the site correctly or any of the other careful steps, then we have destroyed it forever. Then he encouraged us with brave words about how we could save our heritage and it was ours to preserve. Caught somewhere between numb terror and glowing enthusiasm, I tried to follow his lecture about how to do it.

Here's what the white board looked like after his lecture:

My nerves were rapidly overwhelming my enthusiasm. He assured us that it would become clear after we did it ourselves and he would show us the magic tool to make it all sensible. We broke for a cup of tea. We were a very quiet group. Even in Britain there are limits to just how much wisdom or comfort you can get from a cuppa.

He introduced us to the Harris Matrix. I have seen Gantt charts and PERT maps and mind maps and the old fashioned maps of the things you can see. A Harris Matrix is a map and an index rolled into one. The first tricky bit of understanding the matrix for me--the index bit--is that the numbers on the matrix are assigned as you delve through the layers in the dig, so the number does not mean much relative to the other numbers, except 000, which means turf or the bit on top that you pull off to get to the mysteries below.

The other tricky bit about the numbers is that they have to mean something across the entire site. Everyone knows that 000 is turf. That is good for starters, but then if someone in trench A gets into a layer of clay, they need a number for that because it is something different. They cannot call their clay layer Fred, which was personally what I wanted to call ours, because Fred may show up in other trenches (or may not) and so it has to have a number that will ultimately make sense not only of my own personal trench but also for the site as a whole.

OK, so the numbers have to be assigned by someone with more than a one trench perspective and delvers need to remember to get a number assigned. How does a digger know when to jump up and say I need another number, please because I just moved into something different?

Context. A context represents some action or interaction that invites more looking into. The Harris matrix is the device for recording those contexts. The virtue of the Harris matrix is that it identifies contexts (if done right, occurring across the site), and it shows the relative position of those contexts. It's that relative position that gets us back to the chicken and egg conundrum.

After lunch, we came back to practice what we had learned about in the morning. This is what our "site" looked like. To the untrained eye, this is stuff sitting on a shelf made up of a countertop. But with some discussion, my teammates and I discovered that we had several contexts--wall, counter top, photo. Within all these contexts were important clues about chronology: the wall had to come before the picture, for example.

So thanks to the knowledge from the morning and a little help, we resolved the chickens and eggs for one countertop using our shiny new toy and constructed our very first Harris matrix.
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Andy took a photo of all of us proudly clutching our Harris matrices to mark the rite of passage along the way to becoming proper archaeologists.

Now, in addition to remembering all we have been told about soils, pottery, and coring, we just have to master small finds register, data structure reports, context sheets, and photographic register--black and white and colour.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Centuries of Clay

Saturday morning I showed up at Castle Hill Heritage Centre for the next workshop in an ongoing series to train interested people in the community on the techniques of archaeology. I had only the vaguest notion of what to expect. I found myself sitting around a table with 8 other adults listening to a man who has spent 40 years studying pottery and has a fondness for teaching other people what he knows. I like both that generosity of spirit and an opportunity to learn deeply about something.

Part of George Haggerty's commitment to teaching is the premise that you cannot understand the differences in pottery without seeing them, handling them. So he has spread out in front of us lying on their little plastic archaeological find bags a feast of pottery pieces from the 12th through the 17th century from his own collection and from the National Museum. They might look like little plastic baggies with broken bits of pottery to a casual observer. For the eight of us, it was a treasure trove, a guided tour through centuries of pottery and the people who dug it, worked, it, sold it, and used it.

Because I am one of those people who looks into the glass cabinets in museum and yearns to see what is on the other side, to know what the object feels like, to understand how it was used, I was delighted. Scottish white gritty from the 12th century is actually white and gritty. It can look like a bone if you run across it while digging.

If it is fired in part of the kiln that did not get as much heat or oxygen as other parts, it may be greyish. Or part of it may be grey, so that two shards of the same pot may not be the same colour. Red ware, similarly, is not always red. So colour, although a tantalizing clue for identification has to be regarded with caution.

Ironstone is dense and dark. Even a tiny handle has heft in the palm of my hand. A looped back piece of clay fired with a bit of green glaze is the handle for a long lost frying pan. I hold it in my hand and try to imagine what sort of a meal I could make in such a pan. What did they eat 500 years ago? The handle feels too short for a proper fry pan. The glaze makes it sleek, but the smooth grain of the pottery shows where the glaze has not reached it. I think of all the handles I have seen lined up in glass cases and celebrate the fact that I have this one in my hand now.

I handle the feet of a pipkin and the rim of a chafing dish from the 16th century before we break for lunch.

Saturday evening I come back with a friend for the public lecture on 17th and 18th century Scottish pottery. As with so many things, Scots were not thought to make any pottery. It takes a lot of evidence to budge a stereotype.

Sunday is porcelain. We laugh nervously around the table as we handle a cup worth several thousand pounds. It is beautiful to touch. George Haggerty is right. You do understand so much more when you can see something for yourself.

Now our mentor is back down south. He has left us with books and CDs and an enthusiasm for understanding and cherishing what ceramics can tell us.
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