An archaeologist’s life (or how I learnt to love the pickaxe)

Dr Melissa Butcher from the Department of Geography discusses a recent trip to the Greek Island of Despotiko for her first experience of an archaeological excavation, ahead of Birkbeck’s new BA Archaeology & Geography, which launches this year.

Archaeologists at work

As a human geographer studying the complexities of contemporary urban cultures, I have the distinct advantage over my archaeological colleagues in that if I need to understand ‘why’ I can ask someone. I am immersed in a world of material objects that can be traced and described in real time. Yet the contemporary never escapes the markers of the past. Our present is a palimpsest: the uppermost layer of thousands of years of human history reflecting that which we think we are at this moment in time.

Working out how we got to be where we are today requires excavation, figurative and literal, and if you think the latter is all about fancy trowel work and air-brushes think again. If you want to be an archaeologist, learn to love your pick-axe and your wheelbarrow. This was my first lesson after accepting an invitation (or perhaps more accurately, pleading to be allowed to go) to spend a week at the Paros Ephorate of Antiquities’ excavation on the Greek Island of Despotiko, run by Yannos Kourayos and his assistant Ilia Daifa, with collaboration from Birkbeck.

The site itself constitutes the only activity on Despotiko apart from the resident shepherd and his goats (the team stays on the neighbouring islands of Antiparos and Paros). But its position in the centre of the Cyclades archipelago suggests some past importance in maritime trade in the Mediterranean, and ritual significance in the Archaic (6th century BCE) sanctuary, possibly dedicated to the Ancient Greek deities Apollo and Artemis, that has already been uncovered and reconstructed in parts.

The excavation site

The excavation is only open for six weeks each year to allow the team to work on the site, and they are joined by international undergraduate and postgraduate volunteer students from Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Spain, the USA, and the UK, including students from Birkbeck. Starting at 7.30am (ish) with a ferry ride to the site, it’s then pickaxes and shovels, with the occasional sweeping up of dirt, until lunch at 11.30am (ish). We finished by 3pm (ish) so there was always time for a swim in crystal clear blue water before the ferry ride back to Antiparos.

On paper, this may not sound like a particularly difficult schedule but any romantic visions I had of spending days delicately dusting off ancient finds were soon dispelled by a relentless sun and the head-to-toe film of dirt disseminated by a prevailing westerly, giving me my second important lesson: always stay up-wind of anyone with a shovel. The first layer of an archaeological dig is all spade work and shifting large rocks out of the way by hand. It is rare in an academic life that our labour makes us so tired we are in bed and asleep by 7pm, but then it’s also not often that you can have a solid piece of work done at the end of the day: to look at your trench and say ‘I did that’ is highly satisfying.

However, my third lesson in archaeology was understanding the difference between digging a trench and digging holes, the latter being very bad. Each layer of an excavation has to go down as evenly as possible and if that means leaving exposed ancient pottery on the surface then so be it until the next layer is removed. Each layer is photographed, and finds from that depth carefully bagged, cleaned, re-bagged and labelled so that the research team knows exactly which part of the excavation they came from. It is painstaking work most definitely not for the disorganised, and randomly digging out individual artefacts just disturbs the layers and creates confusion. But leaving pieces of pottery exposed for any length of time was for me like putting a chocolate bar within arm’s reach and saying ‘don’t touch’. It is an incredible feeling to hold something in your hands that is over 2500 years old and such did my obsession with digging up bits of amphorae become that I almost had my trowel confiscated and had to banish myself to the cleaning area for a day for my own good.

A sunset over St Georgios Antiparos

My love for pottery remains undiminished, perhaps because these battered shards of the everyday (cooking pots, water jugs, lamps) remind me of the continued importance of the quotidian in contemporary geographical research. They are part of the material record that tell us about our present, yet, given that we are ‘reading’ them thousands of years outside the context of their use, they also generate intrigue and controversy. In material artefacts, it is possible to see traces of trade, migration, war and civilizational collapse, but the pieces can’t always say why it happened.  The order in which artefacts are found and analysed can change how a site is understood. For example, if household pottery is found first and only later a major ritual shrine is unearthed, or vice versa, does that change how we view what happened? And along with the mundane are the mysteries: at my trench, we discovered an alignment of rocks that could have been a wall, or maybe not. Like detectives, the archaeologists tried to determine where it might begin and end, if it had collapsed, what may have been built on top of it. We needed to determine this before we started moving rocks around in case we accidentally removed a 2500-year-old structure. It is the archaeologist’s expertise, gained through years of digging trenches, reading the archives and debating the alternatives with colleagues, that brings back to life a pile of rubble that can give us some explanation of the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of ancient history.

If you are interested in excavating such questions, as well as contributing to the material history of human existence, explore our new BA Archaeology & Geography. Students will get the opportunity to work on Despotiko as well as our other excavation, the Buried Humanities Field School at Must Farm.

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Public-Private Partnerships viewed through a gender lens

In a new paper, published in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy, Dr Jasmine Gideon argues that despite their current popularity, Public-Private Partnerships need to be reviewed through a gender lens in order to establish whether they are really enabling the health sector to address wider social determinants of health and to ensure the longer-term success of any pro-women healthcare interventions.

Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

Good health and sustainable development are widely acknowledged to be inextricably linked, and the promotion of health and well-being is an essential element in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Within SDG3, ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages’, governments have pledged to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) care services by 2030.

One of the approaches often cited as necessary to provide universal access is through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in health. The term PPP has been used in a variety of different contexts, but in the case of delivery of SRH services, PPPs have been used to fund and implement social franchising and health care voucher programmes in the Global South. They typically tie the recipient to a specified good or service package, such as medical consultations during pregnancy, provided by specified service providers who are often private practitioners or private sector facilities.  The approaches have grown in popularity since 2000 because:

  • they have been promoted by a range of aid donors including DFID and USAID
  • they are relatively easy to administer and to measure and monitor,
  • they are considered to be a way of encouraging poor households to use services e.g. family planning that they would not otherwise access.

However, there is criticism about the lack of evidence to sustain the claims made about the effectiveness of PPPs in improving access to health care services, and a recent paper by Benjamin M. Hunter, Susan F. Murray and I has argued that such PPPs may do little to address gender inequalities in health. We highlight the need to apply a ‘gender lens’ to the debate around the effectiveness of PPPs in SRH. We propose three key questions that should be asked of all PPP programmes to determine whether issues of gender inequality have been considered:

  1. What are the assumptions underpinning agendas in SRH-PPP interventions?
  2. How are SRH-PPP programmes framed and judged?
  3. To what extent do the SRH-PPP interventions take into account, reinforce or confront the existing realities of gendered social and economic life?

Applying these questions to a case study of a voucher scheme in India, we found that the design of the voucher programme was based on an assumed relationship between use of formal healthcare and decreased mortality and fertility, and the assumed superior effectiveness of private healthcare ‘markets’. The programme was framed as ‘innovative’ yet programme documents indicate the emphasis was on demonstrating rather than testing vouchers as a healthcare delivery model, and claims of success were made based on changes in healthcare use that were not adjusted for government programmes running concurrently.

The scheme in India did little to confront gender norms and values that are deeply embedded within health systems as well as the households that interact with them. For example despite the claims in programme documents to give pregnant women a choice of facility where they wish to give birth, in reality the decision was made by a husband, mother-in-law, female community health worker or the worker’s male supervisor.

The case study also shows that while PPPs claim to address gender-based inequalities, they do so within a limited framework whose simplistic focus on the gaps in women’s health fails to consider the socially constructed relations between men and women. Such PPPs therefore become part of a wider trend of interventions that have contributed to the depoliticization of women’s health and instead maintain a simplistic focus on maternal health that ignores the gendered power relations.

We argue that despite their adoption as the buzzwords of the moment it is not clear that PPP arrangements move us closer towards the ability of the health sector to address the wider social determinants of health that are critical to ensuring the longer-term success of any pro-women healthcare intervention. Applying a gender lens to review the evidence is one way that we can move closer to this goal.

Further information:

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The pleasure of raising multilingual children

This article and podcast were contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication. His new book is Raising Multilingual Children and is published by Multilingual Matters.

Parents everywhere in the world want the best for their children. It means looking after their physical and psychological health as well as their education. I remember reading books with my wife when she was pregnant with Livia about the best ways to raise children. We felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of information and the occasionally contradictory suggestions on how to be good parents. We were also struck by the strong opinions people had about early multilingualism. Many expressed doubts about it being beneficial for the child “before a first language” settled in: wasn’t there a risk of the child ending up with a “muddled” linguistic system, unable to distinguish between the languages? Others wondered whether growing up with multiple languages might lead to an absence of clear linguistic and cultural roots for the child.

Having read my former PhD supervisor, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s (1982) book, Bilingualism: Basic Principles, my wife and I decided that the potential benefits of early multilingualism outweighed the potential drawbacks, and when Livia was born in London in 1996, my wife used Dutch with her, I used French, with English spoken all around us. She picked up Urdu from her Pakistani child-minder, who spoke English and Urdu with the English-speaking children. We were a bit concerned that the introduction of a fourth first language might be too much for Livia, but this fear turned out to be unfounded and her languages developed at a normal pace – though Urdu faded away after the age of two and a half when she moved to an English nursery school. From the moment she started speaking, she was perfectly capable of separating her languages, and switching from one to another effortlessly depending on the linguistic repertoire of her interlocutor. She still sounds like a native speaker in her three languages and consistently got some of the highest marks for English during her primary and secondary education. The brain of a baby is like a sponge: sufficient and regular linguistic input will allow it to absorb the languages in its environment. There is no danger of the brain ‘overheating’ because of exposure to too many languages.

Livia’s case is the first story in the book Raising Multilingual Children that has just come out. It includes Livia’s own view on her multilingualism at the age of ten and sixteen. My co-authors Greg Poarch and Julia Festman tell the story of their trilingual children. Greg’s son, Loïc, speaks two minority languages (English and Dutch) at home and uses German outside of his home. Julia’s daughter and son, Aya and Noam, grew up as trilinguals from birth, with two minority languages (English and Hebrew) at home and German outside. The situation changed when Julia’s husband passed away and the input in Hebrew dried up. Now German is the majority language spoken inside and outside of their home and English is the language used at school. Greg, Julia and I decided to pool our family experiences with three languages to produce a book for the general public informed by the academic research. We adopted an issue-related approach and agreed that we would present tips based on examples from our daily lives to highlight things that worked, and strategies that backfired with our children. The book contains concrete and practical ideas to implement multilingualism in the household.

Further information:

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Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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