Thursday, February 26, 2015

Nazis in Connemara, Co. Galway!

I reckoned that was a headline that would grab your attention!

Front view with distinctive Swastika

I’ve just been sent this pair of photos from an old friend of mine. He tells me that the object washed ashore near Clifden, Co. Galway about a year or so ago. Unfortunately, the photos lack a scale, but the one where the object is being held should give some indication of its size. At a very rough guess, it appears to be about 85 mm long, and bears a very recognisable Nazi Swastika inside a pentagon (c. 40 mm across). The side view shows that the pentagon seems to have acted as the head of a bolt for securing or tightening a wire or cable of some description. My friend suggests that it might have been used to secure sea mines, but I’ve no particular knowledge of Nazi engineering so I’m not able to either confirm or deny the theory. For this reason, I’m throwing this open to archaeological crowdsourcing in the hope of an answer!

Many thanks,

Robert M Chapple

Side view

Update [Feb 26 20:30]: I truly love the internet & all the fine people you meet on social media! I got one suggestion from Stephen Douglas, the engineer husband of archaeologist Sharon Greene, that it looked like a 'wire tensioner' (or radisseur) ... and a bit of searching later allows me to be pretty certain that this is indeed what it is ... there is one from Brazil [here | here] and another from Scotland [here | here]. It appears unlikely that this device had any connection to the Nazis, but should serve to remind us (myself included!) that there was a time in the early 20th century when the Swastika was a popular symbol of good luck throughout western Europe [here]. 

On the other hand, this gives me the opportunity to post this:

It never rains, but it pours! In the comments below, Mr David Brennan, tells me that he's found a number on a fence in Kildare. Then Mr Liam Byrne brings this to my attention: one on sale in Tralee for €80 [here]. 

These two images are of the radisseur found by David Brennan associated with a fence post, in a field near Newbridge, Co. Kildare. He notes that: 'If I can recall, there were three others remaining on the metal fence post, but no others were to be found on any of the other fence posts along the same boundary fence.'

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 2014 Bob Chapple Archaeological Essay Prize in association with Wordwell Books | The Results

In December 2013 I published a piece on this blog about a little idea I’d had to commemorate my late father, Robert F Chapple, in the form of an archaeological essay prize. My dad had worked on an archaeological excavation as a schoolboy and had been instrumental in providing the inspiration for much of my own career in the field. My goal in this was simple - I had wanted to capture some of that inspiration my father had given to me and pass it on to another generation of archaeologists. I had hoped that by providing the platform of this blog, I might assist in introducing the scholars of tomorrow to the wider world today. Beyond that, I hoped that the essays submitted would themselves act as catalysts for inspiration to those outside academia or the archaeological professions. I sketched out some competition rules and Nick Maxwell of Wordwell Books (publishers of Archaeology Ireland magazine) generously agreed to sponsor the prize of a €60 book voucher against his publications.

By the time the competition closed in November 2014, I had received three submissions. Not a vast number, it is true, but what they lacked in quantity, they more than made up for in quality.

In order of publication, they were:

Each essay has much to commend it and, if you haven’t already, I would urge you to take the time and read them all.

I made it clear from the beginning that I would not be judging these works myself. Instead, I wanted to establish a panel of judges and only exercise a casting vote in the event of a tie … though I sincerely hoped that it would not be necessary. I had no trouble in putting together my list of possible judges … it was a matter of minutes to think of a group of respected, trusted friends and acquaintances of varying profiles within the profession that I would approach. It was only after a little further thinking on the matter that I realised that I had neglected to include any females among this number. Considering that I’d only recently published a piece highlighting how female academic archaeologists have been neglected in receiving the top honours of the profession, it was a chastening realisation that I’d – however inadvertently – strayed into the same error of creating a mental ‘boys club’. I decide to calmly interrogate my own motives on this … Did I not know any female archaeologists? [I know plenty] Did I think they’d be up to the job, fair, and impartial? [of course they would!] Did I think they’d not be interested? [I would have no idea until I asked them … same with the men!] … Well, why not? With that, I decided to restructure my mental search – how about I went about creating a list of suitable judges – held to no less a standard than I would expect from my first male-only group – and see where it got me. Within only a few minutes I had produced a list of contacts that I would be more than equal to the task. In the end, I was proud to have a judging panel of five very capable women at various places in their careers and at various degrees of visibility within the profession. While the identities of the judges are confidential, even to each other, I can tell you that they include prominent field, academic, and public sector archaeologists, along with retirees, those recently embarked on their careers, and a number making their presences felt within the profession. For the most part, though, they do not represent the universities as I wanted to recruit those for whom reading essays was a relative novelty and not just more of the same that they do as part of the day job. I asked them to assess each entry across a number of weighted criteria:

1) How well is the research communicated?
a) Is it well written? (No mistakes in spelling or grammar; is the prose readable?)
b) Does the paper have a coherent structure and argument/presentation? (Are there logical gaps or missteps? Is it presented in a clear & coherent manner?)

2) The Inspiration Factor
a) Do you think this is research is presented in an interesting and engaging manner? Does it make you want to know more?
b) How do you feel that this paper acts as inspiration for others? Do you feel that someone outside the profession would read this & be inspired to learn more? – either about this specific topic, or archaeology in general?

From the outset, I realised that the idea of ‘The Inspiration Factor’ is a particularly intangible one and very much grounded in personal choice – which is all the more reason that I wanted to recruit a relatively wide variety of judges who would bring a broad spectrum of perspectives to the task.

I can only say that they have been spectacular. They have my huge thanks and admiration for the dedication and rigour they brought to the judging process.

Like Highlander, there can be only one! And without further ado, I am delighted to announce that the winner is …

I’m sure that all involved, from fellow contestants, to judges, our generous sponsors Wordwell Books, and the readership of this blog will join with me in offering our sincere and warmest congratulations.

Thank you to you all!

Robert M Chapple

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reflections of an overworked, overwrought, overlooked archaeology PhD student

I’m really delighted and honoured to be able to publish this piece by Dr Margaretha Marie-Louise Vlahos. Be under no illusion, it is a harrowing read in places as she details the difficulties she experienced on her journey from deciding to enter University to eventually receiving her PhD. I’ve heard tales of physical and emotional difficulties faced by many PhD students, so I know that she is not alone in her struggles, but these are rarely addressed in public. For this reason, I believe that it is a remarkably important paper that should be regarded as recommended reading for anyone contemplating a higher degree of any kind – not just archaeology. I applaud Marie for her bravery in undertaking this piece and for the honesty of her writing. I also hope it brings comfort to those who need it, knowing that they are not alone.

I commend it to your attention …

Robert M Chapple

*           *           *

Reflections of an overworked, overwrought, overlooked archaeology PhD student

Dr Margaretha Marie-Louise Vlahos (Archaeologist)

I awoke one morning over twelve years ago and asked myself a question, the answer to which would completely change the course of my life. This question came about because my daughter was about to begin school. What was I to do? I knew returning to work would be a challenge. When women make the decision to stay at home and raise their children, the years that pass, along with rapidly evolving technology often render their skills redundant, as was the case with myself. This often means that when women return to the workforce after a prolonged period, they have to start at the bottom and work their way back up the ladder. This was if indeed I could find a job. I had been looking, regularly browsing the employment pages, in preparation for this moment. Wanned skills left me with few options. I had spent more than ten years in the banking and finance industry and could attempt to return, however, I knew from experience that returning Mums were employed on a part time basis, usually re-entering at the bank teller level. I was pleased when I left the banking industry to start a family and in my eyes, going back would have been a step in the wrong direction. I needed more out of life than that. I wanted to be productive, I wanted to work, but I also needed job satisfaction. I asked myself, if I could do anything with my life and there were no boundaries, what would it be?

The answer came quickly with a resounding ‘I would be an archaeologist’. It was always a dream. My next question was ‘what is stopping me?’ There were of course boundaries, some real, some imagined. I could have put it all in the too hard basket and forgotten the whole conversation with myself. However, once that tantalising idea entered my mind, I could not let it go, especially as the idea of living with regret did not appeal to me. Rather, I chose to identify those boundaries and investigate whether or not I could indeed overcome them. I didn’t know if I was up to the task but I would never know if I didn’t try. So try I did, and here I am.

I was high school dropout. I left half way through year 11 – a disillusioned teenager. It’s not that my grades were bad, they were above average, I just couldn’t see a direction. After bumming around for a while riding dirt bikes with my brother I eventually took finding a job seriously. I was lucky to find employment in the photographic industry. I have always had a love of photography and this fed my creative side. I spent many enjoyable years in the industry and indeed I fell in love with a photographer and we married.
Me at 18 bumming around riding dirt bikes
One night, not long after the morning I awoke questioning myself, I dropped the bombshell on my partner. It came as a total surprise to him. I had done the research; my employment prospects were not good. I figured I could improve those prospects with a degree under my belt. More importantly, I had a passion I felt I needed to pursue. I truly believe that if one has a passion for something and they pursue it, they will become good at it and success and money will follow. That was the theory I presented.  I was not even sure if I had what it took to get into University. I had not completed high school. This meant I would have to study to gain entry. I asked his permission and he reluctantly agreed. Now that I look back, I wonder why I didn’t just make an announcement rather than ask permission. It was a big deal and it needed discussing. I spent the next 18 months, whilst caring for our daughter, studying from home via correspondence to (hopefully) get the score required to enter University for a Bachelor of Arts degree. I was thrilled when my results were more than adequate. In 2003 I began my Arts degree, double majoring in archaeology.

I did extremely well. My grade point average was high and I made the Dean’s list every semester. I always gave it my best. I was not there to play games. This was my life and my future career I was working on. It was serious business – I had to succeed. I always knew I would have some limitations/constraints because of family commitments and I was fine with that. I was not 17, single, with the world at my feet. I always tried to keep a balance between my home life and family and my study commitments. Four subjects per semester proved to be a challenge. I knew that I would not be able to attain the grades I needed and keep a balance with my other commitments if I continued at that rate.  So the following semester and for the remainder of my degree, I reduced my study load to three subjects. This increased the length of my degree from three years to four, however it allowed me to achieve a final grade point average of 6.75/7. Even though I strived to maintain a balance between my studies and my family commitments, the end was not going to come soon enough for my partner.

I can remember staring out of the window in the first lecture of my second year, listening to my professor telling us that we were second year students now and that things were about to become much more difficult. I fought the urge to get up and walk out. Things were already difficult for me. The idea of things getting harder was almost too much to bear. It was not that the work was difficult, but the life unfolding around it became a struggle. I had come so far, I could not give it up.

I had very little support from both friends and family. No one seemed to understand my passion let alone understand the importance of archaeology. I was told by friends and family that I should be studying something ‘useful’. Accountancy was one recommendation, ‘there’s money in that’, they would say, ‘at least that’s useful’. Statements like ‘she’ll never get a job’ and ‘archaeology, what a waste of time’ were also thrown around. Anyone who knows me well enough knows I am not a numbers person and I would not be a successful accountant. I was told I was too old and that I should have done it when I was 17. I was told I was being selfish and that I should be working in any kind of job to help bring money in. I was criticised and ridiculed and lost a number of friends. I tried to not care about what other people thought about me and my choices, but deep down the criticism and ridicule hurt. Humans generally strive to be accepted by the group or community and rejection is difficult for most. It is even more difficult to accept when it comes from one’s partner who is supposed to be a best friend, on your side and your soft place to land. It is difficult to describe how it makes one feel when someone whom you love dearly refers to your passion as ‘nonsense’. Why did no one understand me? Why was I expected to make such a sacrifice with my life, when we already enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle? I did not feel the need for a bigger house, fancier cars, more expensive wine and overseas holidays, particularly at the expense of me having a fulfilling career and job satisfaction. We spend so much of our lives working; surely we should try to make our work enjoyable. Was I wrong to feel this way? We only have one life. We don’t get another shot at it. We have to do what we feel we have to do. Whilst we need to be there for others, we need also to be there for ourselves. Again, I told myself ‘I have come so far, I must not give up.’

I was top of my class in historical archaeology. I was told as a student, I was one of the best critical thinkers my lecturer had seen. At the end of my Arts degree, with my high GPA, it was suggested that I enrol in the Honours programme. I would have a great career ahead of me. Without an Honours degree, it is all but impossible to gain employment as an archaeologist in Australia. So I signed up and a year later came out the other end with a first class Honours degree. I could have left it at that. However, I had the potential to take it further and complete a PhD. I figured that if I could get a scholarship, I could earn some extra money which might make everyone happier.  I also figured that I might as well take it as far as I can go. It would give me more options and open the doors to academia should I choose to go there, which otherwise would remain closed without a PhD. Jobs in archaeology in Australia at the time, even with an Honours degree were almost nonexistent due to the Global Financial Crisis, a lack of funding and a lack of Government graduate positions. I wrote a research proposal and was accepted with an APA scholarship for 3.5 years. Then the ‘fun’ really began.

The Holmes and Rahe stress scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness. Each stressful life event is allocated a score. A score of 300 or more presents a risk of illness.  I listed the stressful life events which I experienced during my PhD candidature and was shocked to learn that I had tallied a score of 606. Some of the more stressful events include: Death of a close family member; a change in health of a family member; marital separation; divorce; change in financial state; unemployment; foreclosure of mortgage or loan; change in residence; change in living conditions; change in schools; change in social activities; eating and sleeping habits and outstanding personal achievement. I had experienced all of the above plus some, all whilst trying to complete my PhD. Little wonder the score was 606.

Interestingly, undertaking a PhD is not included in the list of stressful life events - that’s an extra bonus and extra points. Neither is domestic violence nor euthanizing a long loved family pet – I need to add more points. I had witnessed the slow, physical and mental decline and ultimate death of my father who had only just retired. He had battled with diabetes for many years and a series of strokes lead to his reluctant admission to an aged care facility. Concurrently I witnessed my mother diagnosed with breast cancer and watched her struggle with chemotherapy and the traumatic loss of her hair. The whole family was in crisis. It was difficult to see the relevance and the importance of my PhD compared to these other life events. It paled in comparison to important things in life and I struggled to put it into perspective. I wondered why I was bothering with it. Where would it lead me? Was it all going to be worth it in the end?

Thankfully, I had already completed my fieldwork at this stage. Having to take time away from the family and spend a week in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth collecting data was incredibly stressful also. I was told by academic staff that it could not be done, that four weeks would not be sufficient to get the data required. I made sure that I did it in the time that I had and I came back with more data than I needed. My head was so full of emotion that I found it incredibly difficult to think let alone string words in any type of a coherent academic sentence. I didn’t visit my parents often during this period because it was incredibly traumatic. This created intense feelings of guilt. Was I being selfish again? Or was avoidance essential for myself preservation and survival? I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Between being a dutiful daughter and caring for my own well-being.

With a score of 606 on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale (not including the extra points), why was I not sick, really sick? In reality, I was. I was mentally ill. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and suffering from depression. I felt like a rubber band stretched to the point of breaking. I wondered if this was the onset of a nervous breakdown. Not knowing what a nervous breakdown even felt like – how would I know? I decided I needed to see someone, and fast. I made an appointment with my GP who was visibly shocked when I explained everything that was happening in my life. I told him I was reluctant to take anti-depressants. I didn’t believe that I had any kind of chemical imbalance in my brain. He agreed that my depression was reactive and not clinical and that my physical and mental response to the stress was normal. Indeed, if I were not reacting in such a way, it would have been quite abnormal. It was of some comfort at least to know that I was ‘normal’, whatever that really means. He prescribed sleeping tablets so that I could at least get some sleep and referred me to a psychologist for counselling. The counselling did help somewhat. The Australian government provides up to 12 free sessions a year, although it is dependent upon the practitioner as to whether they are part of the scheme. I had my free sessions once a week, but then the practitioner no longer bulk billed and I could not afford to continue as my scholarship had ended. Finding find the time to continue was difficult also. In hindsight, I should have found a way, because things got much worse.

On the outside, for the most part, I looked fine. A little tired around the eyes and a little sad but nothing that a bit of makeup and a smile couldn’t hide. No one knew what was really going on inside. This is the insidious nature of depression. It is not always visible. Other than obvious changes in eating and sleeping habits my stress manifested in other quite dangerous ways. In order to stop myself feeling pain, guilt and anxiety, I became numb. My body was like stone. I built impenetrable walls around myself; I figured that way I couldn’t get hurt. It seemed every time I managed to pull a few bricks out and let my wall/guard down, I would be open to hurt and disappointed again and so the wall would go up even higher and thicker than before. My driving became erratic. My music was a little too loud, my foot a little too heavy and my judgement a little to inaccurate. I took risks. I was reckless. I made mistakes. I didn’t care. I drove tired. I could not focus. I could not control it. The only time I could control it was if I had passengers – precious cargo. If it was just me, it didn’t matter.

The fight or flight response in me was powerful. I just wanted to run as far away as I could yet I had nowhere to go, no way to run, all I could do was fight. Besides, I had a daughter and a family to care for. I could not just run away or crumble in the corner. I decided to put my big girl panties on and deal with my issues and my stress myself. Something in me snapped. I had to do something in order to survive. So I devised my own strategies to combat stress. I was my own therapist. I have always recognised the power of visualisation and meditation. I would perform mental exercises whenever I was faced with a challenge. I visualised my brain as a bulk storage facility, a type of filing cabinet, if you will. I identified each one of my problems and allocated a box for each. I had a head full of boxes. When I needed to work on my PhD, I would sit quietly and visualise slamming all the other boxes shut. I would visualise nailing each of those boxes shut using a very large hammer and several very thick nails. It was my way of burying my problems temporarily to enable me to address the most pressing. It was prioritising my thoughts, organising my mind. There were days when a box would fly open due to some trigger and I would be forced to deal with it at the time until I could nail it shut again. There were also days when all the boxes would fly open at once and I would be overwhelmed. It took great mental stamina to pick myself up after a good long cry, grab that hammer again, and nail those damn boxes shut. Repeating this process in my mind was mentally draining, but it was effective. Whenever I could, whenever I needed to, I would linger in a long hot bubble bath, sometimes for hours. I would pamper myself with a facemask, a pedicure and a manicure (although my nails were virtually nonexistent from anxious biting and picking). I would emerge a new woman. I would spend some quality time with my daughter doing silly things or I would bake, sometimes at midnight. These are simple, yet effective strategies. They worked for me, they may not work for others. We all have to find our own ways of coping. I am glad I didn’t resort to any form of substance abuse. I didn’t smoke, I rarely drank, my mind was in enough of a mess to not want to mess it up any more with substances.

In March 2012 my husband and I separated for the second time. We had tried counselling but there was just too much hurt, too much damage.  I did not believe that a leopard could change its spots. Of course, the ones who suffer the most in such situations are the children. I became acutely aware that I was not being the best Mum I could be for my daughter. She hated seeing me in the state I was in. Even she could see that it was not going to work. She just wanted her happy Mum back. That was going to take some time.

In April 2012, I received an email from my Advisor expressing his concern. I only troubled him when it was absolutely necessary and throughout the term of my candidature, we met on no more than six occasions. He believes that students must learn to be independent researchers and to stand on their own two feet. However, I could barely stand. I could barely pull myself out of bed. He had not heard from me for over 12 months, or I from him. I was working from home, or at least attempting to. I was called in for a ‘please explain’. There was pressure from the Graduate School and milestones to meet. There was a danger that if I did not progress, my candidature would be cancelled. They were getting tough on students. Considering my emotional state and the imminent death of my father, we agreed we needed to stop the clock and I took a six-month break.  I ensured, as difficult as it was at the time, that I did not leave my project in a state of disarray. I knew that if I did it would be even more difficult to pick it up again when I returned. I had my data and I knew what needed to be done when I was capable of doing it. The following month my Dad died. I was the only one present at his death. It was a cathartic experience for me when his suffering had finally ended. It was as if a great dark cloud had lifted. I literally had awoken the next day feeling lighter and like a different person. It was only then that I realised just how acutely the stress had borne down on me.

My wonderful desk at the School of Social Science,
University of Queensland
I recommenced my PhD in Oct 2012. I told myself yet again, ‘I have come so far, I cannot give up’. It was agreed that it would be better for me to go to Uni rather than work from home - less distractions, less isolation, more connections, a better environment. I was allocated a desk and had deadlines to meet. After an initial panic attack on my first day back (I actually forgot to breath and nearly passed out at my desk), I managed to pick up where I had left off. I started churning out the chapters one by one. I set myself a goal of writing 2000 words a week. At that point, I was going in to Uni three or four days a week. My advisor was astounded. He and several others had their doubts as to whether I would see it through to the end – who could blame them.  I was not about to be his first failed PhD student. I was not about to let him down. I also was not about to let the Uni down and more importantly I was not about to let my daughter or myself down. Her words ‘you can do it mummy’ will always ring in my ears.

I wanted to be finished by April. However that was unrealistic. I was over it, well and truly. We set a deadline for a full draft in early November 2013. I felt like an utterly exhausted runner in an 800 metre race, literally crawling to the finish line. I remember being incredibly excited when I had an actual full draft sitting on my desk. I also remember being completely astounded when twelve months later, to the day, I had a final draft. On the 5th of November 2014, the Dean of the Graduate School notified me that I had completed all the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy. After 6.5 years (11 years in total), it was finally over.

I used to look at people with doctorates and think, so what, big deal. They are only human. Yes, we are only human, however now that I know what is involved in wearing that floppy hat, I have far greater respect for the undertaking. I know I am not alone in the struggles I had endured during my journey. Anyone who has undertaken a PhD has endured some form of difficultly. It is not so much the nature of the research but rather it is the sustained nature of the task. Life keeps on happening. It will also keep throwing us curve balls, quite often when we least expect them. We have to try to deflect them as best as possible, any way we can. Better still; hit the damn things out of the ballpark. I felt like I was standing in front of a pitching machine.

I have been brutally honest here and I wonder if I have divulged a little too much. But this is my story, warts and all, and if sharing my experience helps anyone in anyway then I have achieved something. They say a PhD is a lonely road but it should not have this lonely. They say it is a difficult task but it should not have been this difficult. It is not that I found my project difficult, it came easily to me. I loved it and I never lost interest. I didn’t struggle with any aspect of it, I struggled with the life that unfolded around it.

Graduation day
Many people have asked me how I did it. I usually answer them by saying, ‘I don’t really know’. Then I explain some of the strategies that I adopted to help me cope. I have shared my experiences and strategies with a number of fellow students, in the hope that they may help should they face similar challenges throughout their candidature.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have continued with counselling. I should have fought the isolation and loneliness. I should not have retreated or built walls. I hope I am never again placed in a position where I feel it necessary to build walls around myself to protect me from anything or anyone. It is true that anything worth doing or having won’t come easily. It takes hard work, patience, perseverance and endurance not to mention Jedi level juggling skills.  It would have been nice for it to have been just a little easier, however the cards fall the way the cards fall. I have learned so much, not just about archaeology and the research process. I have leaned who my real friends are. I have lost friends and discovered new ones – friends who will be lifelong friends. I have learned to appreciate simple things in life, like sunlight on my skin, sand or mud between my toes and raindrops on my face – small things my father would have yearned for whilst laying immobile waiting to die. I have learned that money is necessary to survive but not as important as other things in life. I have learned much about myself. I have discovered what I am capable of and that I can be stronger than I ever imagined. I believe I have the ability to be able to deal with whatever life throws at me now.

I have no idea where I will be in five years time. I have always been one for planning and being prepared. I have no idea what awaits me, and that uncertainty scares me somewhat. I think it is best for me to view what lies ahead as an adventure rather than be fearful of the unknown. Finding employment in archaeology is the biggest challenge. I keep telling myself as does everyone around me, ‘something will come up’. In the meantime, I am working on building a publication record and as I write this, my first publication is in press with plans for more in the not too distant future. I am ready to begin the next phase or stage of my life.

In conclusion, I would like to offer some thoughts for anyone considering undertaking a PhD in archaeology or indeed in any field. Firstly, if you have the passion and you have the opportunity, take it – regret is a bitch. Secondly, do not suffer alone – get support wherever you can and don’t be afraid to admit that you need help. Thirdly, do not ride on the shirttails or lab coat of an academic who has a pet project and needs research done and who may offer you a topic on a platter – choose your own. Be passionate about it. If you don’t you run the risk of losing interest when faced with adversity, and that will make the task almost unbearable. I know that if I had lost interest, I would have struggled even more to complete it. Finally and at the risk of sounding cliché, grab life by the horns and pull with all your might. We only get one chance at it and it is over all too soon. Do whatever you feel you need to do to make it count.

Me getting my butt rather dirty at the Ageston Plantation Archaeological Project,
Alberton, Queensland, Australia

Some time ago, Robert invited me to write a piece about my experiences or indeed about anything relating to archaeology to share on his blog. I figured it would be best to wait until my PhD was over and then reflect on my experience. As I recall, mental health and depression amongst archaeologists has been a theme previously featured on Robert’s blog. I wish to thank Robert for the opportunity to share my story on his blog. If it serves to perhaps inspire, encourage or help even one person, it can only be a good thing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Keep Talking | The Great Debate 20 years on | Some disorganised thoughts & unreliable reminiscences

I graduated from University College Galway in 1991 with a rather underwhelming degree in Archaeology and English. A number of factors conspired to influence me to return to Galway in 2011 to be part of the twentieth anniversary reunion of the conferring of that degree. There was to be a reception in the Quad, a tour of the campus, and a celebratory dinner. It seemed like a great idea ... right up until I got there. There appeared to be plenty of people there from the 1991 Law and Medicine classes, but only a handful of the Arts graduates ... and I didn't recognise or remember any of them. In the years of my absence, the campus had expanded all along the bank of the River Corrib and was largely unrecognisable to me. The university was so large you needed a bus tour to see it all. The university was so large you could actually drive a bus around it! Unfortunately, it also appeared that many of the building projects had stopped mid-flow in the aftermath of the financial crisis. There were mutterings that certain construction firms had folded or been taken over by NAMA, the Irish government's repository for 'toxic assets'. The steps in front of the library terminated in a crater partially filled with rusting steel and stagnant water. In retrospect, it seemed as eloquent an analogy for Ireland at the time as it was for the state of the university. The reception hosted by the university was a dispiriting affair that chiefly consisted of braying about how brilliant everything was, and moaning about how much money they needed ... and if we could just remember how grateful we were to our Alma Mater and put our hands in our pockets, please. For me, the final straw was when our host proudly announced that the university had finally banned Rag Week. Maybe things had deteriorated in the years since I left, but Rag Week at UCG was hardly the rolling den of bacchanalian iniquity that might be imagined. It wasn't just that it had been banned, it was the gloating pride and triumph of our host. This little pencil pusher had finally won and he was delighted about it. Worse than that, the majority of the returning graduates cheered the news - the Walter Pecks had taken over the world. I endured the bus tour, but my heart was no longer in it. I'd paid in advance for the celebratory dinner, but I really couldn't be bothered. I got off the bus and phoned my brother. We went for a curry and had a much better time. I went back to Belfast and a few days later emailed the graduates office to ask them to stop sending Cois Coiribetheir alumni magazine - I no longer wanted any form of contact with them. The university I attended had vanished, consumed bodily by changing times and now lying bloodied in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger. In the midst of the cheer that went up at the demise of Rag Week I knew that my time there had passed and, like it or not, I had to move on. There could be no return. Water ... bridges ... and all that ...

So ... why then am I going back in February 2015 for yet another 20th anniversary at the same university?

In early 1995 I was back in Galway recovering from sundry adventures - archaeological and otherwise. I was spending my days hanging around the university. I was to be found either in one of the campus cafes or safely squirreled away in my personal retreat, deep in the bowels of the library (see here) - my own Fortress of Solitude. Officially, I was 'working on my Masters' (even though I wasn't a registered student), but I was really just spending days and weeks reading the beautifully bound, obscure, & dusty 19th century volumes that surrounded me. What I wasn't doing was talking. Other than occasional encounters with library staff and a small menagerie of acquaintances still haunting academia, I didn't seem to have anyone to talk to. It's not like I had taken some Trappist vow, but I do clearly recall one occasion when I realised that I'd not spoken for nearly a whole week. In fairness, my general appearance didn't increase my chances of casual conversation. I had chest-length hair and beard. The former being notable for a degree of vast unruliness and the latter being bright ginger with occasional beaded ornaments braided into its hedge-like awfulness. If this was not sufficient to ensure that I was left undisturbed, I topped it off with a buttonless, navy, three-quarter-length tweed coat. The overall aesthetic was reminiscent of the homeless man on the cover of Jethro Tull's 1971 album 'Aqualung'. On the positive side, I was occasionally stopped by kind-hearted strangers and given money to get myself a decent meal, but asked to promise not to spend the money on alcohol.

On one particular day in January, I was passing through the semi-subterranean Students Union section of the university when I was accosted by Justin, a recent archaeology graduate of my general acquaintance. He had a sign-up sheet in his hand and a prosletising look in his eye. He was intent on getting me to commit to speaking for an hour at the upcoming Lit & Deb attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest debate. The idea was to shatter the previous record by a week and have a full 28 days of 24 hours each with no pause in speech more than five seconds ... and all on the nominal topic that 'this house has all the time in the world'. The motion for debate reflected the fact that the completion was sponsored by Guinness and this line - taken from the Louis Armstrong song - was part of their current advertising campaign. I was having none of it. The Literary & Debating Society - to give it its full title - was filled with all sorts ... but mostly the windier variety of student ... those who saw their futures in law, politics ... sales ... or any other profession that elevated the ability to talk loudly and conjure arguments out of thin air. I disliked them intensely ... but mostly because I envied them. Throughout my undergraduate career I had a tendency to view them as a species of exotic animal - a collection of gilded youths, with easy wit and charm, like an alternate cast of Brideshead Revisited ... but with Irish accents. By contrast, my few experiences as a public speaker amounted to nothing less that occasional announcements given in my capacity as class representative to the Archaeology Society. I was never destined to join the ranks of the great orators of the ages, but even so, my entire repertoire consisted of mumbling that there'd be a lecture or coach tour that weekend and telling people to sign up. Lit & Deb just wasn't for me. I wished Justin well & passed on back to my quiet basement lair.

Time passed and (on February 2nd 1995) when the whole thing kicked off ... I wasn't there and I didn't care. I completely failed to notice that it was going on for the next few days, though there were hints ... even for me a portable podium and gaggle of argumentative undergraduates is hard to miss. Every so often they could be observed changing venue from the 'Smokey's End' of the concourse to one of the classrooms along its length. They weren't going away. Late one evening, around the end of the first week, I was bored and decided to check out what this 'debate-thing' was about. I snuck into the university after dark and found a hardcore bunch secreted away in a classroom ... It was a cacophonous assembly, but still maintaining the rules of discourse and presided over by a chairperson and secretary. I tried to find an unobtrusive corner and settled down to listen. I was both captivated and appalled by what I encountered. I was genuinely captivated by the speed of wit and verbal dexterity of many of the principal participants, by their ability to turn an argument, marshal the facts at their disposal, and wring laughter from obscure facts and phrases. I was also appalled because it was quite clear that the organisers expected a level of participation far in excess of that which I was prepared to give. On the first occasion the opportunity to speak was offered I was conveniently looking in the opposite direction. The next time the offer was made I found that looking down at my feet held much merit. I just wanted for this torment to end - listening to them was great, but the prospect of having to actually speak was too much to bear. I needed to get out!

I remember her still. She was young lady in a wheelchair and she'd elected to speak about how war was 'A Bad Thing' and how nothing good ever came of it. To be honest - then and now - I largely agree with her. I've seen too much of the damage that conflict can bring to individuals and societies to be a jingoistic flag waver for any military organisation ... But to say that 'nothing' positive ever emerged from military research was, in my opinion, incorrect and factually inaccurate. Having observed several contributors from the floor, I knew that the correct protocol was to stand and place a hand on my head and ask to be heard (the gesture is supposed to derive from the legal practice of wearing wigs and the hand being used to keep the horsehair in place when rising to object etc.). Once I was given the floor I really doubt that I spoke particularly eloquently,  but I did point out that the use of penicillin didn't become a commercial viability until it was produced in bulk during the Second World War. I noted that 'cling film' was developed by the U.S. Military for first aid during the Vietnam War. I was obviously warming to my theme/running out of things to say when I pulled in the fact that NASA (during the Cold War ... see what I did there?) invented aluminium foil as part of their effort to get a human to the moon. I should divert here to note that I appear to have picked up some of this information from that most reliable of sources - tales told around Boy Scouts' campfires ... and while I honestly believed it at the time, in doing a little research for this article, I now realise that the last two are ... how can I put it kindly? ... absolute balls! It's two decades late, but I'd like to sincerely half apologise to that young woman - my examples were wrong, but my point still stands. Wartime research for medicine alone has given us blood banks (WWII), wound adhesives (Vietnam), hemostatic bandages (Desert Storm), the combat application tourniquet (Iraq & Afghanistan), and even the concept of Triage (WWI). But I digress ... because I'm not the type of guy who's still obsessing over a minor point two decades later ... honestly. In my faltering, if wildly impassioned, rebuttal I registered the strength of my disagreement by noting that I had never previously spoken in public in this way, but despite this was moved to speak and provide rebuttal. I doubt that any were surprised by this admission. In any event, the debate moved on and the speaker retired. Before a new speaker could be called, the chairperson proposed a round of applause for me in recognition of my maiden speech.

I once cared for the cat (Milly) of a couple of friends (Nick & Laura). Having been raised in Australia, Milly had never been outside in her life. We took her in while said friends were securing accommodation beyond living with his mother-in-law (who disapproved of felines). Milly the cat was terrified of going outside and resisted it at all opportunities and coaxing. One day I found her watching our own cat - the wonderful Norman - in the back yard making fantastic sport of torturing and killing an immense rat. He was having great fun tossing the bloodied corpse into the air and mercilessly batting it about. She sat inside, completely calm and impassive, her little eyes fixed on the spectacle in the garden. I think something inside her snapped that day, as from that point on we could hardly keep her inside. She was generally to be found lounging in the garden or on patrol across her newly acquired territory, seemingly making up for lost time. So it was for me. In that moment of applause and minor adulation I realised that I really enjoyed speaking to an audience ... and I absolutely adored the applause. As anyone who has heard me speak in the years since can attest, I never became good at it ... but I do really enjoy it!

From that night on, I became a fixture at the debate. Multiple cups of coffee and endless cans of coke were consumed in attempts to stay awake and stay active. I took my turn at the podium to speak and had my arguments harshly rebutted by excellent debaters. I spoke about the things than interested me and found friends and allies among the crowd. One evening, when no one else was willing to, I took to the podium and spoke ... and spoke ... and then spoke some more. In all (if memory serves), I lasted 8 hours and 20 minutes. After all these years I can no longer remember what I spoke about, but it probably was quite similar to the general madness I go on with to this day. I do have clear memories of mercilessly haranguing a group of Opus Dei types about the wonders of Neo Paganism and, on a different occasion, giving one individual in a Nirvana T-shirt grief about how talentless Kurt Cobain was ... all in the interests of 'keeping the debate going', you understand. People who have met me and worked alongside me in the years since are not particularly surprised to learn that particular fact. All the same, my personal record was beaten by Aidan B in his military surplus greatcoat, who added about 20 minutes. I'm sure he spoke about many things through those lonely hours at the podium, but I only have memories of an excruciatingly detailed account of the electoral peaks and troughs of the Progressive Democrats political party in his native Limerick. Nights bled into days and the days crept by ... and we all kept talking. Indeed, 'Keep Talking' became the unofficial motto of the debate as any lapse in excess of five seconds could bring the entire record breaking attempt to a shuddering halt. Indeed, the only person to faint at the podium (Dave, the maths post grad, if I recall correctly) fell to the ground muttering 'keep talking, keep talking'. As the recumbent figure was dragged away for resuscitation another speaker was quickly deputised, and the debate trundled on. The other unofficial motto of the time was 'this is a debate, not a conversation' and was used liberally to reign in speakers and audience members who neglected the rules and format of the event.

The story, as I remember it, was that John, the Auditor (chairperson) of the Society, wanted to retake the record. It had previously been set by UCG, only to be taken away by The University of South Carolina just before the Guinness Book of Records went to print ... South Carolina got the mention in print and UCG were left to languish. At that point the record was 21 days - some 504 hours. Discussions with the staff at Guinness revealed that they weren't particularly interested in seeing the record broken by a mere hour or two - they wanted something a bit more spectacular! I've no idea whether it was particularly well thought through or just said as a throwaway line, but John upped the ante and said 'how about an extra week?' ... And that's how the goal was set. 28 days ... a full 672 hours ... the month of February!!! That's what how long we talked.  When the SC record was broken John turned up early one morning in Smokey Joe's with a litre or two of orange juice and a couple of magnums of champagne, but the debate went on ... and on ...

A week later the whole talking shop moved to the Kirwan lecture theater (named for the Irish scientist Richard Kirwan, best remembered as one of the last high-profile supporters of the theory of phlogiston) for the final showdown. The final arguments were made that we did indeed have all the time in the world - I was honoured to be one of those chosen to talk on the motion ... Even if it was against it! The motion was passed and a much needed silence was held. I doubt that there was anyone who was not relieved that the debate had come to an end and that we could get on with our lives. In that final day (or maybe two) of debate, I brought along my camera (Canon EOS 100) and shot two rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus. Other than a couple of shots taken when the South Carolina record was bettered, I think they're the only photos of the event - which is a shame, as I've never been a particularly gifted photographer. That said, they're largely all we have of a visual record of that time & I'm still pretty proud of them - Those from the Smokey Joe's end of the concourse are a record of tired, tired people who know that the end is in sight ... they just have to 'keep talking', while those from the Kirwan theater capture weary minds in fatigued bodies, jubilant at their achievement, euphoric at seeing this endeavour through to the end, but not yet comfortable or apprehending of the absence of this structure in their lives.

The Kirwan lecture theatre was shut up for the night, and the hardcore of participants (colloquially known as 'hacks') retreated to The Skeffington Arms Hotel (itself colloquially known as 'The Skeff') for alcohol, lots and lots of alcohol! I still remember all the young, ecstatic but exhausted, faces looking shell-shocked that this mammoth task had been undertaken and completed. In the background, I remember a bearded, rotund, middle-aged, American gentleman (Jim R) who had come to Galway as a tourist in the first week or so of the debate, liked what he saw and stayed ... he gave up the entirety of his holiday plans to spend days on end hanging out, listening to and participating in the debate. He spent that night, filled with joy and drink, unsuccessfully hitting on most of the single guys. The following night was to be a formal Lit & Deb ball in the Great Southern Hotel (it's now known as Hotel Meyrick, taking its name from the fact that Eyre Square was once known as Meyrick Square), designed to act as the ultimate closing ceremony to the debate. Even still, for several weeks afterwards so many of us haunted the concourse area of the university and Smokey Joe's cafe in search of conversation, debate, and those friendships forged through arguing about Cadbury's Creme Eggs at 2am. The reflexes conditioned into us over those 28 days were harder to shake off than some realised. Many people reported seeing individuals placing hands on heads and standing to make a point in regular cafe discussions, leading to impassioned cries of 'this is a conversation, not a debate!'.

As these things go, time moved on and so did we. Until the advent of Facebook, I'd only really kept in contact with one of the friends I made during this time. Since Aidan set up the anniversary Facebook page and started tracking down the participants, I've become aware of the breadth of our dispersal ... some have followed their destinies and gone into law, others into public service, there are university lecturers, carers, techies and a whole host of other career and lifestyle choices amongst our number. There's even a recovering archaeologist! Some have gravitated to Dublin, the UK, into Europe, North America, Australia, or in my case to the twilight world of Northern Ireland. Just to prove that every probability curve has a far end, there's also one of the old brigade who appears to have remained solidly embedded in 1995, like a ginger Han Solo forever embedded in Lit & Deb Carbonite - still turning up to Thursday night debates in the university.

The 1996 Guinness Book of Records was out in late 1995 - in plenty of time for the Christmas market & there we were under the little heading 'Debating':
"Students and staff of University College Galway, together with special guest lecturers, debated the motion that ‘This House Has All the Time in the World’ for exactly 28 days from 2 Feb to 2 March 1995 at Galway, Republic of Ireland."
For whatever reason, the publishers didn't decide to include the record in the following year's Book, nor (I believe) in any year since. I remember one individual claiming that the disappearance of our record was solely the fault of singer/drummer Phil Collins, purely on the basis that he is the fountainhead of all evil and malevolence. While the argument is lacking in certain vital aspects, I am inclined to agree with the general thrust - Collins is not to be trusted! I've attempted to find out whether anyone else has ever tried or managed to take the record. I've been told of a rumour that a University in Iran ... or maybe Iraq ... managed it, but I can't find any hard evidence. I tried emailing the Guinness Book of Records directly, but they've not yet found the time to reply & various searches on their website have proven fruitless. All other things being equal, I think the record may still stand - and that's something to take a little pride in!

I'm not above a little nervousness at the prospect of meeting so many people that I've not seen or spoken to, for the most part, in 18 years. I wonder at the wisdom of reunions and occasionally feel that one's halcyon days shouldn't receive too much retrospective scrutiny lest the mental edifices crumble to the touch. Nonetheless, I'm willing to believe in the value of bonds forged in dysphoric circumstances & I'm going to be there. For better or worse, the reunion kicks off in the College Bar at 19:30 on Friday 27th February. If you were part of that brilliant, if utterly insane, endeavour two decades ago, I hope you'll come along and share your own disorganised thoughts and unreliable memories.

My photos of the last day or so of the Debate can be found on Photobucket

Lit N'Deb record breaker 1995 20th anniversary Facebook Page
Breaking Records by Dr David Healy (UCG Annual 2002)
Were You Part Of The Great 28-Day Debate? by Mary Cosgrove (

Literary and Debating Society of NUI Galway Facebook Page

Note: For anyone wondering at the appearance of a personal memoir in an otherwise purely archaeology-fixated blog, I'm willing to debate the point citing self excavation of memory as essentially an archaeological endeavor, with all the same time-related degradation that more conventional artefacts suffer from, along with the related processes of selective survival and recording ... try me! ... I reckon we could get an hour or two out of it at least!

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Addendum [March 3rd 2015]
After a bit of light persuasion, I've been able to convince someone who wishes only to be identified as 'someone who was there at the time' to commit a few memories to posterity. Should anyone else feel similarly drawn to add to our collective memory store, they will have a warm reception here, so please get in touch!

I remember hearing about that marathon speech you [Chapple] gave! It became a kind of record-to-beat within the record-breaker itself. One thing you may have forgotten is that people found it easy to remember who you were because you were always wearing that zany, stripey-multicoloured scarf that was literally longer than you were tall.

That small room on the concourse in which we did the debate "after hours" was room 203.

I have a memory of at least two crises that the debate underwent:

1. On the first night, 2 Feb 1995, after the proceedings had moved to that small room, sometime after midnight a window was smashed on the concourse, we reckon by someone trying to get into the debate. That's sheer pulling power: the thing had barely started and already people were going into withdrawal. I spoke to Vinnie Deane from outside through this jagged porthole, and - ever the tactical politician - he was concerned that UCG's Malvolio-esque security crew would shut the whole event down on its maiden night. I had to act as an impromptu bouncer and ask some surrounding people to move on. (There was a suspect: a weed-head whose name you might even recognise after all these years).

2.  At some point in the middle of the night during one of the weekends the whole debate nearly collapsed. The story I heard was that just three people were left in room 203 - and all were dying of exhaustion and couldn't keep going. There was Ollie Moody, Eoin McGillery and one other (possibly Catherine Johnston). In order to be quorate for a Guinness-recognised debate you apparently needed to have at least two participants: a minute-taker and a chairman, at least one of whom has to stay talking without so much as a five-second interruption. So while McGillery chaired and the other person orated, Moody dashed out into a darkened, deserted university to seek urgent help. Deep in the bowels of the science labs he found some PhD candidate hanging about waiting for an experiment to finish and so Shanghaied the guy down to room 203 and got him to speak on something, anything ... while at least one of the others got some vital shuteye and the blood-flow of students started to trickle in again once the sun came up. (Ask Oliver Moody when you meet him: I'm sure it's him I heard this story from.)

Other snippets:

Tuesday, 7 Feb: Oliver Moody, indefatigable as ever, took the podium with an exhausted look on his face and declared: "Women are shite." He was there for a while, I think, defending this particular theory. If you've spent hours and hours debating already, this was hardly the time to pick a fight on that scale. I was reminded of scenes from two Paul Newman films: Cool Hand Luke, where he's beaten bloody in a boxing match and is still swinging listlessly while on his knees, and The Hustler, in which he's played ten exhausting hours of pool into the small hours of the night and now has to begin all over again against a freshened-up Jackie Gleason. Ollie Moody deserves a kind of secular canonisation for his efforts at that debate. (Good thing there are no women in the conclave.)

There was a girl named Anne-Marie [Something] who had an English accent so prim I would mercilessly heckle her. She was also a bit diminutive. When someone asked her if she really was dating a Dutch guy who was 6 foot five and she said yes, someone explained that the Dutch have to be that height to stay above the water level.

Love - in crumbling inverted commas - blossomed here and there. One night Vinny Deane took a break from room 203 and made his move on some girl who later returned to the room looking incriminatingly tousled. After a while the subject turned to what we'd all like to have inscribed on our headstones, and when this girl's turn came, someone cut her off with: "Here lays Vinnie Deane."

We discussed poetry. A guy who wrote poems got involved in a deep discussion with some girl giving him a point of information. When he asked her if she wrote poetry and she replied No, someone in the audience barked: "And why not?"

We had a procedural motion that Jarlath Ryan get in touch with his masculine side.

A heated debate engulfed PMT one night over planning permission for some horrible development in Phoenix Park. Ronan McSweeney stepped in: "Mr Chairman, I think I can see a compromise. One wants a casino, the other wants a racecouse. I propose a rodeo."