In the Middle of Things

2012 November 9

As I was saying before I allowed myself to be interrupted by … “stuff”, I landed a job at another university as a library paraprofessional.1 Money, security, pension plan, and health insurance. I have been spectacularly fortunate; it’s a great job, with great colleagues.

So far, so good.

One of this new job’s unexpected perks was the opportunity to pitch a proposal for a library exhibit. I did and it was accepted. Consequently, for the past few months, I’ve been working on an exhibit focused on the archaeology of “Prehistoric Wessex”, its appearances in popular culture, and (more precisely) the ways in which people represent places in image and text. Before anyone jumps in: Yes, Hardy is in there. As are Camden, Stukeley, Jones,2 a selection of nineteenth century periodicals, film and TV clips, and numerous other things.

Right now, I won’t say more about the content, but I must admit that the process has been an eye-opening experience–and quite different from that with the Elements of Interpretation exhibit of a few years ago. On the one hand, being free to select materials from all of the library collections here rather than just one branch library has been liberating. On the other hand, this time, the exhibit space is much larger. With so much library material to choose from, filling that space might not have been so hard but ensuring the exhibit did not turn into a “big baggy monster”3 was challenging. Every step of the way, it’s been necessary to balance showing off the diversity of the library’s collections with the need to build an argument for any one item’s inclusion.

In the end, I think that the pitfall of “bagginess” has been avoided and everything coheres nicely.4 We’ll just have to see what everyone else thinks.

I finished a draft of the exhibit text, yesterday. I’ll spend this weekend reviewing and revising what I’ve written along with the contributions of my two collaborators (Jon and Katy). On Monday, the text goes to a copy editor; two to three weeks later, we expect to get it back so that we can make any necessary changes. The text has to be finalized, laid out and formatted (with images) for the catalogue, and sent to the printers, in time for a March opening.

All of which is a round about way of explaining the mess on the floor of the spare room.

1 Please see the usual disclaimer about none of the views expressed here being those of my employer, etc.
2 Inigo Jones, rather than the other Jones we normally associate with archaeology.
3 I owe this phrase entirely to my wife.
4 Fingers crossed.

New Jobs for the New Year

2011 January 16
by David Platt

As of this Tuesday (January 18th), I’ll be starting a new job as Library Clerk in University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

After several months of uncertainty in what might best be described as a “difficult” job market, this is a huge relief. It’s a fixed term (rather than permanent/ ongoing) position but it represents a significant addition to family income and means that I won’t have to spend my mornings scouring the various online job listings for vacancies at libraries, museums, and other cultural resource management institutions — at least for some time to come. The job also means that I’ll have a whole new set of colleagues and the opportunity to make some new friends.

And, not insignificantly, freed from the tyranny of writing job applications, I should have more energy and time for a little more of the writing that I really want to do. I want to start writing an academic article based on my research on Roman public libraries, plan for a magnetometry project in the northeast of England, and work more successfully on this blog.

In addition to this, in fall 2011, I’ll be teaching the Introduction to Archaeology class at Rowan University’s newly consolidated Sociology & Anthropology Department. I’ve signed up to teach a Monday evening class which means that, every week, I’ll be dashing from Philadelphia to Glassboro after my day job. As with the library position, I’m excited about this. I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom again!

Lost Villages

2011 January 15

Back in November, there was an interesting article in the online BBC News magazine with direct relevance to the Where London Stood project and that might also be of interest to those interested in “modern ruins.” “The secrets of Britain’s abandoned villages,” by Tom Geoghegan, discusses villages and other settlements in the UK deserted in the twentieth century.

People abandoned the settlements for a variety of reasons. Sometimes general economic decline forced inhabitants to leave (e.g., Dyliffe, in Powys). Other times, natural processes such as coastal erosion took their toll (e.g., Hampton-on-Sea in Kent). And on other occasions, people were required to leave by a compulsory purchase order — either to make way for a military training ground, as in the case of Imber (in Wiltshire) and Tyneham (Dorset), or a new reservoir, as in the case of Mardale (Cumbria) and Derwent (Derbyshire).

It’s possible to find some of these sites on Google Maps. Below is an aerial photograph of Tyneham. The unroofed remains of several buildings are clearly visible:

View Larger Map

Follow the link to “View Larger Map” and it’s also possible to use Street View to see ground level photographs of some of the buildings. There appears to have been some restoration work — the 1940s telephone box is particularly striking.

Tom Geoghegan’s article includes a couple of nice gestures towards the archaeological. First, there’s this guide to finding lost villages:

  • A church standing by itself is a tell-tale sign
  • Bumps and lumps on landscape could be earthworks
  • Different colours in soil
  • Stone or brick settlements might have outline remains

Second, the article touches on some of the conflicted feelings that we have towards ruins, setting them in the context of archaeological research.

Archaeologists are happy because the remains give them an undisturbed snapshot of society, [Trevor Rowley] says, but there is an underlying sadness to these events. Although some people affected were rehoused, many others took up a life of squatting while the most unfortunate turned to vagrancy.

I think that the “underlying sadness” contributes to the fascination that these sites have for archaeologists. I also find it quite interesting that Tom Geoghegan doesn’t question the idea that archaeologists might be interested in modern remains.

Third, the article sets these twentieth century “abandonments” in the context of broader British history, indicating three other periods when significant numbers of villages “disappeared”: the fourteenth Century, as a result of depopulation in the wake of the Black Death; under the Tudors, as fields were enclosed for pasture; in the eighteenth and nineteenth Centuries, with the formation of parks for large country houses.

Overall, I think that it’s quite a nice piece of writing. It leaves me wanting to follow up on the subject and there are a number of obvious ways forward:

  • The article contains a link to Stephen Fisk’s excellent Abandoned Communities website. There’s a lot of content and a great map of the sites that he discusses.
  • The BBC has covered the topic previously — e.g., SUNKEN VILLAGES (BBC Inside Out – East Midlands: Monday September 1, 2003) and Lost villages revealed once again (BBC News: Saturday, 11 February 2006). In addition to using the articles as basic information resources, it might also be worth tracing when interest in the lost villages reemerges in the mass media.
  • I’d also like to spend more time locating some of these sites on Google Maps. While, in many cases, the evidence of the villages simply may not survive, I’d like to see what else I can find.

There are also several books on the subject that I should try to get my hands on:

Finally, the subject of compulsory purchase orders and the granting of land to the Ministry of Defence also reminds me of a book that I read last spring:

I’ll need to revisit this and see what she says about the CPOs and forced re-locations (if anything).

Transmission Resumes

2010 September 9

Some rather sheepish apologies are in order, as things have been embarrassingly quiet on this blog for the past few months. My life has become very busy indeed and it’s been hard to keep writing with all that’s been going on.

By way of explanation:

  • In February, my wife (“Z.”) accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in English at New Jersey’s Rowan University in the Department of English. She was scheduled to start her new job on September 1st, 2010.
  • In April, we flew out to look for a place to live. After looking at the house, we signed a rental contract more or less on the spot. We were simply thrilled at the idea of living in a house instead of an apartment.1
  • More or less as soon as we returned from New Jersey, I handed in my notice to Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources (SULAIR). I would spend the next two months trying to tie up loose ends at work. The last thing that I wanted was to have the people who took over my positions (Classics Bibliographer and Art Library Operations Manager) cursing my name after I’d gone.2
  • We packed all our worldly possessions into four ReloCubes® and had a professional moving company transport them across country. This left us free to drive across almost all the USA in a car rather than a massive truck. I say, “Almost,” as our new home is about forty miles west of the New Jersey coast. We saw a great deal of the country that we might never otherwise have seen. It was, at times, quite simply spectacular.
  • It was also quite rushed. We made the trip in five-and-a-half days. The Midwest was kind of a blur.
  • On arrival in New Jersey, I had two days in which to help select a colour scheme for the new house and begin re-decorating, before jetting off for Durham (UK) so that I could join the Binchester Roman Town excavation.3
  • After the excavation, I dashed down south for a wedding in Shrewsbury. On the way, I stopped in Manchester to collect Z. (who had flown out) and my parents.
  • Z. and I then flew from Manchester back to New Jersey, where we would spend the next two weeks finishing decorating the house.4
  • We finished decorating in mid-August. Since then, my wife has finished prepping for and started teaching her classes; I have begun a full blown job search.

The decision to quit my two jobs and move across the country to an uncertain professional future was both a difficult and an easy one for me to make. SULAIR has been a tremendously supportive environment over the last four-and-a-half years. I was all too aware that I would miss the many friends that I’ve made there immensely. I had both feet planted firmly on a career ladder. All of these things and they made the decision to leave California difficult.

On the other hand, neither my wife nor I were particularly thrilled by the idea of having a transcontinental relationship for the foreseeable future. This made the decision for me to move with her easy.

As if it that weren’t enough in itself,5 there are actually a number of advantages in my moving to the Greater Philadelphia area too. Rents and house prices are much lower than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Philadelphia is only 15-25 minutes away, by public transport. By way of contrast, my drive to Stanford from San Francisco to Stanford was 45 minutes (by public transport, it could take three hours on a bad day). Further, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are both rich in cultural heritage and the cultural heritage industry. In terms of possible career development, there are few places in the USA where I could be better located. So far, I’ve been scouring the small ads for positions in libraries, museums, or CRM (cultural resource management) companies.

I’ve only started the process of finding a new job, but I’m actually very optimistic about the future. And, after something of a hectic summer, I think that things are beginning to calm down a little.

With luck, this should mean that I’ll be able to resume blogging more frequently …

1 We are still thrilled about this. We are also delighted to be paying less in rent for the house (and garden) than our old San Francisco apartment.
2 It’s possible that they did anyway but I did as much as I could to make sure that this wasn’t the case.
3 The timing of the excavation was less than optimal. As things were, I joined the excavation two weeks late and was only able to stay for ten days. But in going to the dig when I did, I was leaving Z. to unpack the ‘cubes (which arrived after I had left) and continue decorating by herself. This decision does not reflect as well on me as I would like. Please send you hate mail to the usual address.
4 For the record, redecorating a whole house in one go is not something that either of us ever wants to face again. We felt that it would be better to get the job out of the way before we’d settled in properly. In hindsight, this was the case. However, time pressures of the oncoming school year meant that it was officially not much fun and extremely stressful.
5 And the reader should note that there are those who might question my dedication to my career at this point. Oh yes, there are.

Grad School and Debt

2010 March 21

A quick shout out for Serena Love’s blog, Tales of an Educated Scrounge, which addresses the serious subject of student debt. In covering this, she also writes about:

  • The actual, if non-material, rewards of pursuing an advanced degree in archaeology or the humanities.
  • The difficulties of getting a job as an academic archaeologist after six years (or more) of Ph.D. training and the kind of competition that one faces in the job market.
  • Her surprise upon discovering that a professional dog-walker could be paid more than a Ph.D. graduate starting his/ her first academic job.

I don’t always agree with what she has to say and I don’t think that I’d have made some of the choices that she made. I was brought up to be wary of any debt other than a mortgage. In part, I started a Ph.D. because I wanted to be an archaeologist but work as a professional field digger was almost impossible to find.1 But I do not think that I’d have jumped back into academia, if I’d have ever thought that I’d face substantial student loan repayments. Even though I felt that I wanted to be an archaeologist more than anything else, I don’t think I’d have been committed enough to the dream to take on a five figure debt — much less a six figure one.2

Reading Serena’s blog makes me realise how extremely lucky I’ve been in my pursuit of further education (“higher education” in American English).

I did my first two degrees in the UK in the early- to mid-nineties, a very different place than the UK of today. I squeezed through my B.A., before the days of top-up fees and while the student grant was still in place, even if it had been frozen for several years. A British Academy of Humanities post-grad fellowship funded my M.Sc.

When I moved to the States to start my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I had no idea of what an American Ph.D. actually involved3 and how long the whole process could take. Stanford University supported me, one way or another, for the first six years. Yes, I said, “Six years.” When that money dried up, I managed to land an entry-level paraprofessional job with SULAIR (Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources) which sustained me while I finished the dissertation — I was lucky to get a job with afternoon and evening shifts that left me free to write in the mornings. I took a formal leave of absence from my Ph.D. programme, which allowed me to continue to work towards the final degree without paying university fees. At the time, I would have had to find over $2,500 per term just to be a registered student and retain access to the university libraries.

It could very easily have been very different. Without the job at SULAIR, my partner and I would have been in serious trouble after my sixth year. Meanwhile, friends and relations in the UK starting university only seven years later than me had to assume student debt that would have sent me scuttling off to “the real world” before even starting my B.A.

There but for fortune etc.

Serena’s taken the novel (I think) step of including an online contribution jar. So far, she’s raised $75 out of $115,000 that she needs to pay off her student loans. That’s not that much — if you swing by the blog, you might consider dropping a couple of dollars into the pot. The pot takes Paypal.

1 There are significant gaps in my employment record from the time in which I was on the digging circuit. When I was working, employment was short term and paid terribly. For tales of British commercial archaeology and its difficulties, see Paul EverilI’s Invisible Diggers project.
2 Make of this what you will.
3 This statement does not even begin to cover it.