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Personal Histories Project Announcement

April 11, 2017

Pamela has been in touch to say:

You are invited to view our short film of the late Barbara Isaac speaking
about her life in Africa. Her family has requested that we release her
memories now.
We also have permission from Mick Aston’s widow, Teresa Hall, to release
this clip filmed before Mick unexpectedly passed away.
The interview was conducted by David Kay and Jamie Cameron at Pamela’s
and Thurstan’s flat in Cambridge in April 2012.
We hope everyone enjoys these memories!!
Personal Histories thanks the Thriplow Charitable Trust and the McDonald
Institute for Archaeological Research.

“Bloodline of the Princes” – The New Sign at the Pillar of Eliseg

April 8, 2017

Howard raising interesting points about heritage, nationalism and the place of archaeology in the new political landscape


This post is about the first-ever modern heritage board installed at the Pillar of Eliseg.

Project Eliseg

After 1 season of survey, 3 seasons of excavation, loads of public talks, blog posts, our interim report written and our project monograph coming together and contracted with University of Wales Press, Project Eliseg has made a lot of progress.

I’ve long been told by Cadw’s inspectorate that they plan, when money is available, to commission a sign board for the Pillar of Eliseg. The aim was that it would incorporate the results of the fieldwork we conducted and Cadw part-funded. There is already a major display around the replica of the Pillar in Llangollen Museum, and Nancy Edwards’s section of the Cadw guidebook to Valle Crucis, but nothing to read about the monument on site.

Knowing this, I had expected the ‘heritage interpretation’ would be in liaison with my colleagues at Bangor…

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“This is our Land” – The New Sign at Valle Crucis about the Pillar of Eliseg

April 8, 2017

Source: “This is our Land” – The New Sign at Valle Crucis about the Pillar of Eliseg

Cfp (Another Cup of) Tea with the Sphinx

April 6, 2017

Exciting news! Those Tea with the Sphinx folks are doing it again! And, if last year’s conference is anything to go by, then it’s going to be a treat, a veritable feast of superb papers, wonderful people, marvellous imagery, thought-provoking discussions, to say nothing of the delicious cakes, inventive nail art and desirable shoes. I am, as you may have guessed, very, very happy at this news! So, drum roll, fanfare, cheerleaders shaking their pom poms etc I present the call for papers

Tea with the Sphinx:
Defining the Field of Ancient Egypt Reception Studies

1st & 2nd September
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Howard Carter examines the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun

With the suggestion that there may be secret chambers still unexplored in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the wealth of artefacts that further excavations are bringing to light, comes the possibility that we are on the brink of a twenty-first-century wave of Egyptomania. This new interest will not only bring with it new opportunities for academic research to intersect with the popular imagination, but also brings about pertinent philosophical, theoretical and methodological questions relating to the ways in which we, as scholars, engage with the history of the reception of ancient Egypt. In recent years a number of studies have examined the reception of ancient Egypt in the modern world, but a cohesive discipline of Ancient Egyptian Reception Studies has not yet emerged. This conference invites scholars from a range of established disciplines to come together to define the field of Ancient Egypt Reception Studies.

The organisers welcome proposals from a range of disciplines. Potential topics include but are not limited to the following:

  • Theories and methods of Ancient Egypt Reception Studies
  • The relationship between Classical Reception and Reception of the Ancient Near East more broadly
  • The usefulness (or unhelpfulness) of Classical Reception Theory as a model
  • The place of ‘Orientalism’ and postcolonialism in this field
  • Issues of gender, race and class
  • Histories of archaeology (in particular social histories)
  • Ancient Egypt as represented in a variety of media
  • Receptions of ancient Egypt across temporal and geographical boundaries, from the ancient world to the present-day, and in Egypt itself
  • Receptions of ancient Egypt in the ancient and early modern worlds
  • Popular culture vs elite culture
  • The importance of public engagement to Ancient Egypt Reception Studies

Abstracts of up to 300 words for 20 minute papers along with a short biographical note (in the same Word document) should be sent to by 5 June 2017. Ideas for poster presentations are also welcome, particularly from postgraduate students.

Suddenly the world is a happier, brighter place!

Have a great weekend,



Review: Bird’s Eye View

March 31, 2017

As promised, another excellent review from Martyn:

Review: Elinor Florence (2014) Bird’s Eye View; Dundurn Press, Toronto.


For me, successfully reading a novel requires a considerable degree of immersion, which means ideally being able to sit for at least an hour or two without interruption (yes, they know who they are and they will be made aware of this post). But it isn’t just pets and children and just about everyone else that can disrupt proceedings – there is also the problem of a little too much prior knowledge about the subject matter.

As an archaeologist, I first experienced this when reading Peter Ackroyd’s novel First Light back in the early 1990s while camping near Carnac, which is a piece of irrelevant detail. Everything was fine until the archaeological side of the story came more to the fore… An Early Bronze Age leaf-shaped sword? In Britain? No! Absolutely not!! And no way is that an appropriate excavation strategy for a long barrow. Yanked straight out of the narrative, I found myself back at the campsite wondering what other paperbacks might be skulking unclaimed in the tent [i]. The experience didn’t just overshadow the rest of the book (yes, I did finish it), but also made me a little wary about some of Ackroyd’s subsequent novels –I even found myself doubting that 17th century poet John Milton had ever really crossed the Atlantic. It takes a lot more for this sort of thing to happen these days – working for Historic England, prolonged and disciplined suspension of disbelief is an essential daily requirement.

Fiction involving air photo intelligence isn’t exactly common. When it does crop up, it is usually presented as something relatively straightforward and unproblematic, as in a lot of archaeological reports. After all, understanding what’s on a photo can’t be that difficult, can it? There is the odd exception though. My favourite example occurs in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La Grande Illusion [ii]. In an early scene, French aviators disagree over what they see on an aerial photograph. In the next scene we watch two of them being led into a PoW camp, having been shot down and captured by the Germans.


Qu’est-ce que c’est? Air photo interpretation from La Grande Illusion. The feature of interest was actually some indistinct smudge obscured by the more easily identifiable road or canal or railway or whatever.

So, when I heard about a novel set in the world of air photo intelligence at RAF Medmenham during the Second World War, I was intrigued. Based on a sample chapter available online, I realised that it wasn’t the kind of novel I’d usually read (such as this, this and this; thanks for asking). However, what I was interested in was the use of the source material. As it turned out, there were no First Light “Stop! That’s not right!” moments while reading it. Instead, aside from the occasional transatlantic slip (for example, Tower Bridge and London Bridge are actually very different structures), the main problem I had was with seeing the (to me) familiar and well-documented words and actions of real people being given to fictitious characters.

The story, written by Canadian author Elinor Florence, concerns the young Rose Joliffe. When we first meet her in smalltown rural Canada in the summer of 1939, she is not long out of school and working for the local newspaper as the sole employee of the proprietor, a grumpy Scot called Jock McTavish. Once war starts, and eager to do her bit for the mother country (no, she’s not French Canadian), Rose finds her way across the Atlantic to enlist and after a few adventures, ends up involved in air photo intelligence at Medmenham. We follow her throughout the war and eventually (and this isn’t really a spoiler – Rose narrates so obviously she survives) back to Canada.

Plentiful research has gone into the book, the available published material supplemented with interviews and a visit to the UK to see Medmenham itself and other places, while descriptions of the experience of stereoscopic viewing suggest that the author has had a go at this too. Of the key sources though, only Constance Babington Smith’s Evidence in Camera is mentioned specifically. However, episodes from other books appear, such as Ursula Powys-Lybbe’s The Eye of Intelligence, in which occurs the idea of distinguishing cows from bulls on the basis of the shadows they cast (you would need very low, clear sunlight). Events, some major, some minor, from these and other sources crop up in the narrative, as Rose finds herself involved in the work undertaken in reality by Constance, Ursula and others. On one occasion, Rose – as narrator – offers us some words originally from Antoine de St Exupéry.

Now, knowing that knocking back the brandy after repeated blood transfusions isn’t a good idea doesn’t stop me from enjoying Bram Stoker’s Dracula [iii]; likewise, realising that the armadillo is not native to Transylvania doesn’t detract from the pleasures of Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film version. In fact, after a few viewings, you take their presence for granted and even look forward to them showing up. However, seeing the thoughts of Saint-Exupéry being uttered by Rose Joliffe [iv] was somewhat distracting, although if I were ever to read the book again, perhaps passages like that one might seem a little less jarring, much like those Transylvanian armadillos.


Genuine Transylvanian armadillos scurrying in the gloom of Dracula’s castle.

[i] I could have removed the earlier irrelevant reference to camping at Carnac; instead, I’ve chosen to leave it in and make use of it.

[ii] Renoir flew as a reconnaissance pilot in the First World War.

[iii] Nor, of course, does knowing that vampires aren’t real.

[iv] Flight To Arras, from which Rose’s words are borrowed, was first published in June of 1942, as well as being adapted for radio broadcast by the BBC Home Service later the same year.

Brexit and Archaeodeath

March 29, 2017


Today, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, signed a letter officially notifying the European Council’s president of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the union as required under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This ‘historical moment’ is what the press love, but it is part of a long and complex, ugly and acrimonious process that will be costly for our past as well as our future.

With permission, today I photographed one of my colleague’s offices at the University of Chester. Like me, she is a Europhile and voted against leaving the EU. Like most historians, heritage specialists and archaeologists, she has been astounded by the unfolding horror of Brexit since the referendum result of June 2016. For her, I suspect the dismay  is political and ideological as much as it is economic and academic, rooted in a keen awareness of Europe’s distant and recent past, and the many…

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Spring, already?

March 24, 2017

I’m not sure where most of March has gone, in fact I’m not sure what happened to February either. If you’d asked me earlier in the week what month we were in I’d have confidently stated we were near the end of January. It would appear I’m a little behind the times – handy for a historian of archaeology, not so useful for real life. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that my calendar hasn’t been altered by someone for a laugh and it really is nearly the end of March. All the signs are there, my daffodils have gone over and the tulips are coming through, Lambcam has finished for the year and the 10 year old is telling me he’s 11 next week. So, what have I got to tell you? What have I got to show for the missing month or two where I haven’t been blogging? Remarkably little. This turret of HARN Towers has been having some much needed renovations.

HARN Towers

The amount of disturbance should have transformed this (Copyright Paul Brooker )



into this. But from the outside you wouldn’t notice any difference. HOW CAN SOMETHING SO MINOR TAKE SO LONG AND SEND ME SO CRAZY?

It looks much better now, but it was stressful and disruptive while it was being done and nothing intellectual (or even intelligent it would seem) happened in my brain for the duration. I’d like to say I’m back, firing on all cylinders and ready for deep thoughts about all matters archaeological and historical but this would be a lie, I’m shambling around like a B movie Zombie or Mummy* groaning ‘coffffeeeeeeee,  caaaaaake, schoooooool letterzzzzz, where the hell did I put my glasses this time?’ I may have to distract you with gambolling lambs while I collect the few thoughts I have

(There are lots of lovely lamb photos on that page, but if lambs don’t distract and soothe you then how about kittens? A live webcam of kittenage, it is my most favourite thing ever – and may go some way to explaining why I’ve been so unproductive of late – and is giving me great comfort as the news from London unfolds and as we hurtle towards Brexit-land)

I have been reading, or trying to read, Men From the Ministry by Simon Thurley.


Isn’t the cover wonderful? It’s taken from an advert for Shell from 1931 by E. McKnight Kauffer. There’s more of his work here.

I began reading it with great enthusiasm having found it in our library and after seeing this review by Rosemary Hill whose Stonehenge I’ve long been meaning to read. The enthusiasm has waned, this could be me suffering from inattention, it could be Thurley’s inexplicable omission of photos of kittens and lambs, or it could be that it’s simply not very good. I am in awe of anyone who manages to write a book, but, as I often tell the children, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Admittedly Simon Thurley isn’t likely to write on my newly painted walls with pink felt tip, but equally just because he could write a book about the history of English Heritage doesn’t mean he should have done so. I discovered while I was doing my PhD that I could write chapters of a bonkbuster to entertain my fellow researchers, it’s certainly not what I should have been doing, but I digress, again. Anyway, I’m still undecided as to whether the fault lies with me, Mr Thurley or the absence of kittens. I shall continue reading and probably produce a review for you.

I do have some reviews and blog posts from other people too, Jon and Martyn have promised me reviews and I think Kate has a post too.

There will be news of HARN 2017 – just as soon as I get myself organised and stop lurching about the place looking for cake/coffee/letters and my spectacles.

Next week, perhaps.

In the meantime, stay safe, have a good weekend, but mainly stay safe


*Yes, it’s a rubbish pun but I felt compelled to write it.