Thursday, April 24, 2014

Archaeology of Gatherings Conference | Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland | October 2013 | Part I

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The weekend of the 25th to 27th October 2013 saw an influx of visitors to Sligo town. Some were there for the Sligo Live Music Festival; some had travelled long distances to be part of the Bram Stoker Weekend. However, a select band had come for the Archaeology of Gatherings Conference. The year 2013 had been designated the year of ‘The Gathering’ – an initiative to draw tourists to the country. Thus, the organisers had conceived of this conference to draw archaeologists, historians, sociologists, and allied disciplines together. This diverse group, representing an incredibly broad spectrum of specialities, had been assembled to discuss the very topic of Gathering: What is it? How do you define it? How do you record it? Even from the bare list of speakers and topics, I was convinced that this was going to be an intellectually packed weekend. I wasn’t wrong! The speakers were truly enthralling, with everyone bringing different facets to what felt like a peculiarly communal experience.

It was a brilliant conference that was pretty well attended and the folks at Institute of Technology, Sligo did an amazing job on all fronts: getting the speakers, organising the venues – all the usual stuff – but more than that, they really tried to make all participants, both speakers and delegates, feel genuinely welcome and part of something special. I’ve learned in the last while that they are hopeful that they’ll be able to put together a peer-reviewed volume of the collected conference papers. As an interim measure, before the publication of the book, I would like to post a series of review pieces, summarising the papers. I hope that this will give readers who couldn’t make it a feeling for the conference and, perhaps, spur them on to consider attending next year’s one! Also, I’m hoping that it piques the interest of many, who will go and buy the book when it is published.

I’m going to add in just one brief warning/apology (warology?): there was an immense amount of data presented over these two days and I’ve done my honest best to record it accurately and fairly. However, I’m currently looking at over 50 pages of hastily scribbled notes that I’ve not looked at in over two months, so I’m not entirely sure how successful I’m going to be in translating my rough demotic into readable English. If I’ve missed out on anything, or incorrectly understood any point that an author was trying to get across, I sincerely apologise. I would invite any of the presenters so ill-served to contact me and I will make any appropriate additions or changes to the text. I just hope that the authors can recognise their work in my rendition of it!

As I’ve noted elsewhere, there was an informal drinks reception at the Glasshouse Hotel on Friday evening. On Saturday morning we made our way to the IT, Sligo campus, though I did manage to get lost on the way, and my passenger witnessed the rare occurrence of a straight white guy stopping to ask directions! Once registration was complete, we all took our places in the lecture theatre. Sam Moore, chairing the first session, welcomed us on behalf of the organising committee, and briefly introduced the idea that sparked this conference: the perceived difficulty in identifying large-scale religious and social gatherings. The hope of the conference was to create a gathering of our own, bringing people from different academic backgrounds and specialisms together with the hope of mutual enlightenment and cross-fertilisation of ideas

Çatalhöyük under excavation (Source)
The first speaker to the podium was Dr Jonathan Lanman (Institute of Cognition and Culture, QUB) to speak on Ritual and Divergent Modes of Cohesion. Lanman began with the deceptively simple idea that gatherings ‘do things’ to people and that one of these things is that they provide social cohesion. There have been many theories as to what they do and how they do it, but there have been few systematic investigations. True, there is a wealth of ethnographic material examining gatherings, but there has been less emphasis on the systematic analysis and testing of these ideas. Beyond this there has been almost no attempt at understanding the mechanics of social cohesion. One of the biggest problems is that we have yet to ask basic questions like: what is ‘ritual’? What do we mean by ‘cohesion’? It is this lack of a precise terminology that, Lanman argues, has hampered research up until now. However, there are a number of new efforts and there is some cause for optimism. Lanman is part of the ‘Ritual, Community, and Conflict’ project, based at the University of Oxford. One of the things that the project has done is divide the idea of ritual into separate parts: Dysphoria, Synchrony, and Signalling. Signalling is the showing allegiance to the group; Synchrony is defined as a unity of movement and engagement; while Dysphoria is the experience of pain, fear and anxiety. Cohesion, on the other hand, is broken down into ‘Group Identification’ and ‘Identity Fusion’. ‘Identity Fusion’ is a visceral sense of oneness, where the participant feels that ‘I am the group’. Alternatively, ‘Group Identification’ is built on Social Identity Theory and sees the individual comparing themselves to a prototypical group member. The project is on-going and has, so far, drawn evidence from six countries. They have shown a strong correlation between the feeling of fusion with a group identity and the willingness to fight and die for that group. For example, this correlation of fusion levels correctly predicted the individuals who either physically assisted or donated money and goods in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. One of the aims of the Oxford project is to devise (and answer) new, more precise questions. They see that is it less fruitful to ask if ‘ritual’ gatherings make people feel ‘cohesive’. Instead the questions they are attempting to formulate include: Does synchronous movement increase group identification? Does shared dysphoria produce fusion?

Beyond this there is a matrix of types of cohesion. For example, there are high frequency events that produce low arousal levels, such as attending church. This form of gathering is capable of producing large-scale, diffuse cohesion. On the other end of the spectrum are low-frequency events (on a generational scale) that produce high levels of cohesion. The important thing to remember is that it is not a case of one-or-the other, but that there are lots of in between places. Other research questions that the project is attempting to address are related to the ideas that there are certain packages of shared beliefs that allow groups to succeed. For example, rebel groups in Sierra Leone use horrific initiation rituals to bind members of the group together. Other work includes a re-examination of the archaeological remains at Çatalhöyük in terms of ritual and group cohesion. The project is also beginning the task of putting together a database of rebel groups that they intend to expand into a world-wide resource and reference over the coming decades.

Allianz Arena (Source)
Dr Hans K. Hognestad (Centre for Cultural and Sports Studies, Telemark University, Norway) spoke on Identity, power and the sociality of football. I’m going to be quite honest here and say that I met Hans the previous evening at the drinks reception and found him a very interesting and engaging individual. Then he told me that his paper was to be on soccer and my heart fell. I’m among the world’s least sporty people – of all the sports that don’t interest me, football is up there at the top. I had little doubt from our conversation that his paper would be a good piece of research, but I wondered if I’d really be able to engage with it, given my joint lack of interest and knowledge in the game. That feeling persisted right up until he explained that he would be examining football as a social drama. I’d never before thought of the game in this context. When my fears that I’d be treated to yet another explanation of the off-side rule (that I have repeatedly failed to understand) did not materialise, I relaxed into a remarkably engaging, insightful paper that was one of my personal highlights of the conference.

Hognestad began by acknowledging the privileged position that football has held among other sports for the last two or three decades. Within the sport there are numerous contested identities and moralities that demarcate notions of what constitutes ‘good’ support. This quest for authenticity is set against a background of globalisation and ‘Casino Capitalism’. Complicating the situation further are numerous ethno-political dimensions. For example these may be religious/sectarian rivalries of the Rangers/Celtic Old Firm, or FC Barcelona which has become a symbol of Catalan opposition. Other teams that embody this form of division include FC St Pauli, SS Lazio, and Athletic Bilbao. He argued that gatherings for football matches include (quasi) religious dimensions mixed with carnivalesque laughter (following the work of Mikhail Bakhtin). These gatherings are defined by their intensity (feeding on elements of patriotism and rivalry) along with distance (incorporating laughter and inclusion). In a section on Sociality in a Neoliberal Age, Hognestad argued that football has undergone a number of structural changes in the last two decades. These include responses to stadium tragedies such as Heysel, Hillsborough, and Bradford City, along with bending to the twin forces of modernisation and commercialism. Taken together, these represent a challenge for some supporters who seek local authenticity and a sense of ownership and belonging. Going against this form of modern football has been a rise in activism among fans, resulting in a number of fan-owned clubs.

In contemplating the Stadium as Modern Sanctuary?, Hognestad turned to John Bale’s (1993) idea of the stadium producing a topophilic feeling, where the ground becomes a sacred space to the fans. Parallel to this are feelings of topophobia, especially in cases where the stadium was the scene of violence and disaster. Post-1990 there has seen the emergence of a dystopic vision (following Ritzer 2009) of the stadium as the site of disenchantment and social control. In this light the stadium becomes a prison, a cathedral, or even Disneyland. In the latter sense it is the site of mere entertainment, but not one of social connection. Looking at Football as Opera Hognestad examined the prestige buildings and major sponsors of the elite clubs, including Bayern Munich and their sponsorship relationship with Allianz at the Allianz Arena. At the other end of the scale, he noted that even Sligo Rovers still needed and sought sponsorship. Following Richard Giulianotti’s paper ‘Supporters, Followers, Fans, and Flâneurs: A Taxonomy of Spectator Identities in Football’ (2002) he presented a breakdown of the four types of ‘ideal’ fan. The ‘supporter’ is topophilic, with a grounded identity, while the ‘fan’ is influenced by the team’s market identity and is prone to buying the latest shirt, etc. The ‘follower’ is described as having a nested identity, and is often considered to be a 90 minute patriot’. All of these stand in contrast to the ‘flâneur’ who is the product of the hyper commodification of the sport. They have no sense of personal or social commitment to any individual team and are most likely to change allegiance to the latest or biggest clubs.

The West Clare Railway (Source)
Edel Barry (Built Heritage Collective Ireland) spoke on Gatherings: The Archaeology of Railways in Ireland. This paper is based on her MPhil thesis on the narrow gauge railways of Munster. She began by attempting to overturn the traditional notion that when we think of railways as a means of communication, we tend to think of the dispersal of people, rather than gatherings. While such forms of dispersal did occur (including assisting in large-scale immigration from the 19th to the 21st centuries), they also facilitated gatherings. She traced the development of the railway system from the efforts of Charles Bianconi, who made travel relatively inexpensive in Ireland during the early 19th century, though it was still beyond the reach of most people. Despite early developments in the 1830s, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that there were significant improvements in the rail infrastructure. By the 1870s there was investment in the construction of ‘feeder’ lines, which were often narrow gauge, to reduce cost. One significant development was the passing of The Railway Regulation Act 1844, which introduced compulsory third class services, priced at a maximum of 1d per mile travelled. Railways also allowed unprecedented independence to many women through the provision of ladies-only carriages and waiting rooms that allowed movement without having to be escorted by male relations or chaperones.

Politicians were not slow to capitalise on the opportunities offered by the railways. For example the ‘whistle stop’ tour was begun in the UK by William Ewart Gladstone, effectively turning railway stations into political platforms and sites of gatherings. Another growth area associated with the railways was in their potential for leisure uses, and numerous ‘Excursion Specials’ became commonplace. This was part of a burgeoning awareness of health and recreation needs within the general population. For example, this was the prime reason for the development of the Lahinch Hotel with its own rail links to the West Clare Railway. While such recreational activities were initially confined to the upper and moneyed classes, they eventually became affordable to the working classes, too. Barry argued that the role of railways in facilitating gatherings is manifest in facilitating the attendance at sporting events. This included various GAA fixtures, but also extended to football, cricket, rugby, boating and horse racing. The close relationship between the railways and their dependence on providing transport to sporting fixtures can be seen in their sponsorship of the Interprovincial Championship (better known by the name of its prize: The Railway Cup) for both Gaelic Football and Hurling. In examining the physical station as a focal point within local society, Barry gave the example from Lahinch where the women of the community would come, sit, and knit under the shady awnings.

Newgrange in the 19th century (Source)
The last speaker in this session was Dr Robert Hensey speaking on Crowd-sourcing in the Boyne Valley. Linking to the previous speaker, he noted that the modern fame of Newgrange was inextricably linked to the rise of the railways in the nineteenth century, making access to the site easier and more affordable. The paper proper began with a brief introduction to the modern (typically online) phenomena of ‘crowd sourcing’ which Hensey defined as the practice of obtaining needed services by soliciting work or contributions from a wide population base. The motives behind this may be manifold and include philanthropy, political activism, product design etc. The hallmarks of the process are that it is not coercive – there is an open call to participate; it relies on an undefined group for support; and that it usually involves reward or recognition for the donor.

Turning to Newgrange and the passage tombs of the Boyne valley, Hensey noted that the traditional narratives for site construction involved elite control or elite authority. He asked the apparently simple question: ‘is this really a balanced view of what was happening?’ From here he gave an overview of passage tomb development in Ireland. This was partially founded on his recent Radiocarbon dating project at Carrowmore (Bergh & Hensey 2013). He outlined three primary phases of passage tomb development in Ireland each represented by distinct patterns of change in the design and role of the monuments as they ultimately progressed towards ‘temple-like’ centres.

As passage tombs increased in scale, increased levels of community involvement were required too. Returning to the idea of the elite control of Neolithic society, Hensey argued that such gatherings could have served wider social purposes, including bringing together rival groups to promote peace or stave off warfare. He noted that if work transforms ‘things’ into ‘property’, the Boyne valley community may have had a considerable sense of ownership of these sites. When viewed from this perspective, the wider collective may have had a much greater sense of ownership of the monuments than previously thought. Hensey argued that a strong centralised authority was still necessary to instigate and manage these great projects, but that the willingness of the community was also required, and that this latter narrative has for too long been under-theorised and examined.

With the time just gone 11:00, we broke for refreshment