Today I felt up an urn….

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The way we (archaeologists and general public alike) initially engage with archaeological artefacts fascinates me. For those lucky enough to be a professional archaeologist, this preliminary interaction is an important, if not usually an unsaid part of the archaeological process. To this day I still get a real thrill when handling a relic of the past. On excavation or in musty dusty museum depots, I feel like a treasure hunter. The booty doesn’t necessarily have to consist of gold coins. In fact, I get fired up about all types of material culture (with the exception of Roman ceramic brick material; that stuff is just a pain in the arse to deal with). Objects from days long ago spark the imagination. I find myself fantasising about whom the item belonged to, what she or he may have been like, their life story and their beliefs and values. I see this as the first, and indeed a very important step, in developing a connection with and generating stories about the past.

This week in the City Museum in Vršac, Serbia, I have analysed ceramic objects from over 80 Bronze Age graves. The majority of these are urns that were made specifically to house the remains of cremated individuals. These ceramic containers are a testament to the lives of people who have long gone, not just those whose remains the vessels contained, but those crafters who made them, members of the community who saw them and family members and friends who may have carried them to their resting place. It seems like I am just stating the obvious, yet how often are the people, intrinsic to an objects manifestation, omitted from archaeological narratives? How many times have we discussed object morphology or decoration without sufficiently probing how these objects were so integral to the lives of past people? In the case of urns made specifically for mortuary rites, we seem to have ignored the emotion that may have been poured into the making of them. It is obvious that some were made very quickly; they exhibit a rough quality with organic voids, uneven surfaces and slapdash decoration. If we accept that many of these vessels were built within family household communities of practice, the urn becomes not only a symbol for a rite of passage, but an emblem of the grieving mother, father, daughter, son, wife, husband or friend. And when purposefully I strip myself of all my archaeological knowhow and switch off my analytical eye, looking at these objects, this is what I see. I see the people behind them. I empathise with them because I know despite socio-cultural and temporal differences; these people were not so different from me.

Today in a moment of intense longing to get a feeling for both how the object was made and the person who made it, I literally felt up an urn. I traced the entirety of its body with my hands whilst shutting my eyes. During this haptic engagement, I could feel the bumps left behind by the joining of clay coils, I could feel finger and hand indents that mirrored the crafter’s movements, as well as the smoothness and coolness of the vessel. I felt oddly emotional, not something that a doctoral researcher should really admit to. Yet here I was, 3500 years later, with my fingers touching the finger imprints of someone I will never meet; someone who died thousands of years ago. I will never know what that person was thinking or feeling at the time those finger indents were made within that soft clay. Nor will I know who the vessel was made for. But just in that brief moment I felt a connection, the object acting as a bridge between the land of the living and the realm of the dead.

It is my belief that this type of engagement and our emotional responses to objects are just as important as all the other analysis we subject our artefacts to. For one thing, particularly for my vein of research, it presents us with subtle information relating to how an object was fashioned. But more importantly, it reminds us why so many of us were attracted to archaeology in the first place; to somehow connect to people of the past and tell their stories.

Creativity can just piss off…..or so I thought.

yippeeTwo years (ok, over two years) into my research project, I have finally decided that it is simply not possible to categorically locate creativity within ceramic assemblages of Belegiš type. How it took me so long to come to this rather obvious realisation is beyond me. Perhaps I was simply trying to be clever. Or stubborn. The eureka moment presented itself in a project meeting back in December where I tentatively suggested to the group that I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could really equate the diversity within my assemblages with creativity alone. Murmurs of agreement followed. My first reaction was, shit, I knew it. And then a wonderful recognition came over me. These assemblages are diverse and yet bound by traditional technological rules and design structures which don’t necessarily point to creativity. But this in itself is fascinating. What is it that allows for such variability? In that instant, my research became less about actively trying to superimpose western ideas of creativity onto these prehistoric assemblages, and instead became a detailed study of the processes that allow for variation and cohesiveness in assemblages. So now I am using my data to explore much more tangible concepts and investigate similarity and difference at several scales of analysis, from three interlinked perspectives: craft practice (at an individual and community level), social tradition ( a more macro scale of analysis), and yes, it’s still there, creativity. OK, so I can’t pinpoint creative action in the archaeological record, but that is not to say that I should abandon the concept entirely. Instead, it now has use as a tool for thinking through and discussing the engagement between people and material. If we take Ingold and Hallam’s (2009) idea that creativity is how we as individuals make our way through the world through improvisation and problem-solving, it becomes a valuable way of rethinking through how agents working within communities of practice renegotiate social traditions. In essence, creativity bridges the gap between individual action and ever shifting social traditions. So all is not lost. My project is now a much more holistic probing of a dynamic assemblage of material and goes beyond the previous rather simplistic typological analysis of Belegiš material to probe the technological underpinnings of production. Phew! I better get cracking…..!

 

 

Pressure to be creative?

Saraswati. Hindu goddess associated with creativity.

The words ‘think more creatively’ were uttered to me a few weeks ago and it started me thinking. Within our society, I feel like there’s an intense underpinning pressure to be creative. By this I mean original, daring, thought-provoking and, well to be quite honest, special. I feel it in many aspects of my life but most strongly when it comes to academic pursuits. Constant focus within the research arena is to look for new solutions or even new problems that we can create new solutions for. It’s blissful when the research is flowing. But all of us recognise that creativity cannot be forced. When it’s not there I feel like a useless fraud. I don’t feel original, I don’t feel particularly daring and I especially don’t feel special. I wonder if social expectation to contribute something highly original to the world is just too much responsibility for the mere individual. How novel does something have to be for it to be creative? Building on this, how original does it have to be before it gains social recognition? Do any of us ever feel that we are creative enough?

 In some contemporary societies, notably in India, creativity is not the creation of something out of nothing. Instead, to be creative refers to a reworking of existing knowledge.  Hindu principles explain creativity as cosmic energy that flows through an individual. Creativity is therefore not seen as the property of the individual and similarly there is no accompanying expectation. The consequence of such a belief is that India remains a very traditional society and although there is diversity, it is bound by the worldview in which it is situated.

 I have to admit that within an academic context the idea that creativity is a flow of energy as opposed to a reflection of my body and mind’s capacity is quite comforting. Perhaps such a view has potential to mitigate the often debilitating pressure felt by so many of us to be creative and original and instead allows us to just ‘flow’ without the attached social judgement or expectation.  Then again, this is perhaps just wishful thinking!

Until death us do part?

Doing a PhD is a bit like a (three year) marriage. There is a honeymoon period where you love your research with every fibre of your being, and are willing to gloss over any potential issues. It excites you, makes you nervous, and you believe in happily-ever after. Next is the nesting stage. You and your PhD are happy to spend time together. You communicate freely; it’s still organic and the habitual routine of sitting with it every day is something that you still look forward to. Over time this changes. You and your PhD begin arguing. There are things you don’t like about your PhD and things you wish you could change. You are jealous of other people’s PhDs and wish your PhD was more like theirs. The passion is now sporadic. Doubt creeps in. You question your commitment. And like any relationship reaching crisis point, a choice presents itself; you either work through your issues or decide to move on.

So guess which stage I am at. Yup, the ‘this could all end in divorce’ stage.  I still love my PhD. It’s intriguing, interesting and relevant.  The problem is that some days it just seems really really hard. As soon as I think I am gaining insight, new challenges emerge, my brain fights all it can to understand, and then decides it has better things to do and shuts down. Often these days are infused with frustration and end in eye leakage.

 Creativity is such a complex, dynamic and mind-boggling subject to study in the contemporary world, let alone in Prehistory. Sometimes in my research I flit between concluding that everything is creative or that nothing is creative! Yet no matter how hopeless it seems, I am stubborn and the difficultly of the task at hand actually spurs me on. Clarity is restored when I remember why I wanted to be an archaeologist in the first place. What’s important to me is that I give the people of the past a voice and narrate their story with as much detail as I can ascertain. I may not be able to give definitive answers, but I can still conscientiously shed some light on prehistoric makers and keep people at the centre of my interpretations.

 So my choice has been made and it’s time to renew my vows. I, Sarah Coxon, do take thee Creativity in the Bronze Age PhD to be my lawfully wedded thesis. Although hopefully not until death do us part…..

Insight from Innovation

Last weekend the archaeology department at the University of Southampton hosted the Insight from Innovation: New Light on Archaeological Ceramics conference. In recognition of contributions to the field by Prof. David Peacock, the conference comprised of a dynamic and thought-provoking set of papers, some of which paid homage to David and others that showcased new approaches and methods to the study of ceramic remains.

 

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with papers from keynote speakers Simon Keay, Roberta Tomber, Mike Fulford, Ian Whitbread and Peter Day. Each was a humble tribute to David’s past and continuing devotion to archaeological research. Throughout the evening it became clear the important and defining role that Southampton has played in the trajectory of ceramic studies and David’s part in it all.

 

Saturday and Sunday saw a shift in focus to the future of pottery-based research with the presentation of fresh theoretical approaches, methodologies and techniques. The speakers included not only archaeologists but a contemporary ceramic artist, a physicist and those involved in computational 3D modelling, demonstrating the field of ceramic studies as a growing arena for interdisciplinary interaction and integration.

 

The conference was a huge success. It acknowledged an individual who has perhaps without even realising it shaped several generations of archaeological practice and simultaneously created a platform for a new trajectory in pottery-based research. It reiterated what we’ve known all along – that pottery is a dynamic resource for archaeological insight. It became clear throughout the weekend that with the advent and development of new approaches it will continue to play a pivotal role in our narratives of the past.

 

 

 

Creativity in all forms….

ImageIt’s been a while since I last blogged and in that time I have been on data collection trips, presented papers and have been busy organising the upcoming ceramics conference (http://innovationconference.wordpress.com). On top of that, I have also been taking some time to explore my own creativity. I have to be honest, this is not strictly for my research, but as a means to look inward, do some soul-searching, and see what makes me tick. The more I have challenged my existing beliefs (that I’m just not creative, that I’m an academic through and through), the more it has dawned on me that just to be alive is to be creative. And the more I open up the possibilities and shake off the shackles of limiting self-belief, the more creative energy flows. I have spent much time painting, writing, singing, moving, all of which have embodied my creativity. Ironically, it is from detaching myself from more traditional academic methods of enquiry that I have gained the most understanding of just how important creativity is to all of us. Embracing that creative impulse and having a creative response to something feels good. It creates variety and stimulation. It can surprise you and come in any shape and form, in all areas of your life. Acknowledging it, letting it in and having the freedom for this expression is a platform for personal growth. Dancing with my creativity has allowed me to challenge my previous behavioural patterns. The world becomes more beautiful, ever-changing and above all, interesting. So that’s the beauty of creativity: it keeps us mindful of life. Such realisations make me realise just how important such a concept of creativity is for us archaeologists who are desperate to understand people living in the past. As a discipline we have a lot of work to do. We have a need to open up, embrace such seemingly ‘woolly’ concepts, not because they are easy to research, but because such topics open up more lines of enquiry and generate more questions that not only relate to people of the past, but also how we operate as a discipline.   

No. 2: Creativity Master Class

In my previous creative experiment I painted a tree, and to be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud. Yes, it was creative in the sense that no-one has painted that exact same tree before, but I was still constrained. Psychologies’ sub-article ‘Creativity Master Class’ suggests that the following hinders creativity: wanting to conform, fear of being judged and the desire to stand out. I think she’s hit the nail on the head. There is something about my tree that screams perfection, conformity and fear. In fact, the finished article speaks volumes about me as a person. Those nearest to me will readily tell you I am a perfectionist who likes everything to be in order. Once a bit of a rebel, I now embrace conformity of sorts; I rarely like people disagreeing with me and am scared to stand out but also crave it. Those facets of my personality mean that my tree was as it was. Different yet constrained. According to the author, the first step in breaking down those mental barriers is to do away with discipline (but I’m an academic!) and re-engage with freedoms to do what you want. Tree number two coming up.

 

Paint doesn't wash off carpet very well....

Here it is. It’s somewhat different to the previous attempt. Tonight, I wanted colour. I wanted to use my fingertips and feel the paint sliding across the page. I wanted to not care about the final outcome. And this is the result. This piece is not about showing you that I can/ can’t paint. It is a pure expression that draws upon imagination. It is vulnerability on a page. It shows that I am no Picasso but that I’m not even trying to be. It is my creativity for a brief moment in time, laid bare for you all to see. It’s an extension of me. I can’t say I’m particularly proud of it, and it’s not something I plan to hang on my wall, but it was definitelymore fun to paint than my previous attempt was. 

So what has reverting back to being a five year old child shown me? Firstly, originality can be brought about by throwing caution to the wind and forgetting about everyone else, and just doing. Secondly, sometimes creativity does not necessarily result in something you yourself will like and be proud of. And thirdly, if in doubt, get messy….