Conference season

Since late-March I have barely spent a weekend at home, as I have been travelling all over the country for various conferences, seminars and workshops. It’s been incredibly busy, leaving little time for posting on my blog for which I apologise. Normal service should hopefully resume this month, so watch this space!

I haven’t been completely silent online over the past few months – Twitter is the obvious place where I’ve been posting about what I’m up to (follow me at @bigfridge224). I’ve also written a guest blog for the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC), which I have reproduced below. You can find the original here, on the TRAC website.

TRAC sessions attended:

  • Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches
  • Theorizing space and material culture in Late Antiquity (first half)
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts (second half)
  • Contextualising coins, assembling contexts and interrogating agency
  • Integrating Environmental and Theoretical Roman Archaeology

CA sessions attended:

  • Smelling Rome
  • The Senses in Roman Life
  • Low genre and ideology (first half)
  • Sacred space and the senses (second half)
  • The experience of ancient polytheism
  • The role of perception in making sense of space
  • The Roman Empire

I attended both TRAC and the Classical Association Conference (CA) this year, and as they were so close together I thought that a comparison of the two might be interesting. Obviously this comes with plenty of caveats: TRAC and the CA differ in size, purpose and remit, and both are world-leaders in their respective corners of our field. I don’t intend to proclaim which conference was ‘best’ – how would I even decide, and what would be the point? Instead I thought I would focus on my experiences of attending the conferences, how I found the themes, formats and content of this year’s TRAC and CA.

Both adhered to the standard format of academic conferences. Panels consisted of a number of 20-minute papers centred on a specific theme. Although a few of the panel chairs reserved discussion and question time until the end of the panel, the majority gave the audience 10 minutes after each presentation to ask the speaker questions. At the CA there were also a couple of round-table discussions, which were a nice change from the standard format. It would be nice to see some more variety from the norm at conferences – modern technology might hold new opportunities, and actually both the CA and TRAC were great at encouraging engagement through social media, especially Twitter.

The most noticeable difference between the two, and something that is immediately obvious from looking at the brochures, is the sheer size of the CA compared to TRAC. This year the CA ran nine panels consecutively over almost three days, meaning that there were almost 200 papers given in total, not counting the roundtables, plenaries and film screenings. The whole thing felt like an academic version of Reading Festival, with so much going on that you could never hope to catch it all. Thankfully most of the rooms were close together, so switching panels was possible if needed. The benefit of the gargantuan size of the conference was that there was always something on that I was interested in. For me, the panels themed around the senses had the biggest draw, and there were some outstanding speakers across the three days. I enjoyed in particular the “Smelling Rome” panel, with Dr Eleanor Betts’ work using the theory of ‘pungent loci’ to navigate Rome by smell especially interesting. I also thought the way Jeffrey Veitch applied modern knowledge of sound engineering to Ostian bath houses was a great way to get closer to ancient experiences. Overall, the theoretical content of these sensory panels was good, and the speakers applied theories from a wide range of other disciplines to provide excellent insights into the ancient world. Alongside the academic talks, the CA excels at bringing in professionals from associated areas, especially in education. It is always great to hear about how Classics is being taken out into communities and schools – ultimately it is the only way our discipline will survive!

TRAC was somewhat cosier, but still offered more than 80 papers over the two days (had this been a RAC/TRAC year the size difference would have been smaller). My experience of TRAC was altered by the fact that I participated in a panel, namely “Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches.” Naturally this was the stand-out panel for me at TRAC, with a series of excellent presentations which were very close to my own research interests. Ancient magic can often seem like the black sheep in our field – it was barely mentioned at the CA, despite the huge number of researchers present – so getting a whole dedicated panel at TRAC was very welcome! On the whole, TRAC was more focussed than the CA. Being an archaeology conference the emphasis on material culture was expected, but although the rest of the empire was occasionally mentioned, most papers concentrated exclusively on Roman Britain. Despite this, the variety of materials discussed kept up my interest, and I particularly enjoyed the environmental archaeology session – a topic I knew very little about previously. Like many others I was impressed with Lauren Bellis, who made her TRAC debut off the back of her MA dissertation on social relations with dogs in Roman Britain: one to watch! The most theory-heavy panel was “Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts”, in which most of the speakers wore their influences very much on their sleeves. Nicky Garland studied small finds from a range of scales, and brought in theories of agency, identity and landscape. Jason Lundock’s use of material complex theory was also very enlightening, giving fresh perspectives on how objects were perceived and experienced in the Roman world.

I had a great time at both conferences. I met loads of great new people and heard some exciting, ground-breaking research. Engagement on Twitter added an excellent dimension to the experiences; something I hope will be developed and improved at future events.

The wandering student

It’s been a little while since I wrote something on here – a combination of Christmas and a hectic work schedule are to blame! Today I thought I would give a little summary of what I’ve been up to over the last few months (skipping the boring bits, obviously!).

A lot of my time has been taken up with writing and editing various bits – I’ve finally started producing larger chunks of thesis, which is good progress. I’ve also been writing conference papers for TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) and AMPAH (The Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient History) – both of which I plan to post, either on here or on, after the conferences.

The research I’ve done around all this writing has been mainly in the form of site visits. In the wise words of Indiana Jones:

If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!

Taking my cue not just from the great man himself, but also an expanding body of archaeological interpretation based on the philosophical theories of phenomenology, I have been trying to get a better idea of the experience of writing curses for people on the sites they were found, and this can only really be done by physically being there. Before Christmas I went back to Bath, and this month I spent a week in Germany looking at the Trier amphitheatre and the temple of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz. Now, I wouldn’t claim that I got the exact same experience as a Roman would have on these sites almost 2000 years ago, as so much has changed at all of them in the intervening time. Human experience is also not universal – what I feel, hear and see as a (relatively) young, fit male could be drastically different to people of different ages, abilities or genders. Nevertheless, there were things I noticed that I would never have appreciated no matter how long I started at the site plans in books. The amphitheatre in Trier has fantastic acoustics, even in its ruined state. Every minute sound made on the arena floor echoes out in the seating areas, something that a person digging a hole for a curse tablet would have been aware of.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

At Bath, standing at the windows over-looking the spring, you get a real sense of the mystical power of the water. It bubbles and steams: it’s opacity masking whatever lies beneath. For anyone who believed that a goddess lived there, these sensory experiences would have confirmed her divine power, making it a prime place to try to communicate with her.

I have also had the chance to handle some of the original curses from Bath and Trier, thanks to the generosity of the museum staff in both towns. Much like the exercise of making my own tablets, this brought new insights into the physical process of doing a curse. I got a feel for how the tablets were made, their weight in my hand, how hard the person pressed with the stylus, and how they folded or rolled the tablet after writing.

All of this is valuable information, and the challenge now is to work it into my argument. Back to writing I go!

A Year in Review

As of this month, both my PhD and this blog are a year old – hurrah!

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I'm sure there's a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere...

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere…

In celebration of my first anniversary as a PhD student and blogger I thought I would write a little retrospective of the last year: of the things that went well, the things I’ve learned and the things I need to improve as I look forward to second and third year.

This little nostalgia trip was partly inspired by my trip up to Milton Keynes last week. The Open University Arts Faculty invited me and two other second-years to talk to this year’s intake of new PhD students, and the questions they asked reminded me of the concerns I had at the same time 12 months earlier. What is probation like? How do you organise such a huge project? Where do I even start? Obviously, everyone’s PhD is completely different to everyone else’s, but there are some things that are common to us all, and we tried our best to put the new students at ease. The main thing I kept repeating was that they should be enjoying their research. There is no point in committing three years of your life to something that you hate, and thankfully I have a topic that I really, genuinely enjoy researching.

One of the new students asked us something perceptive, and on reflection I think my answer says a lot about me. He asked if we could go back and do our first year again, what is the one thing we would change. I initially joked that I might work faster, but in the end I said that I wouldn’t change anything, because the mistakes I made have helped me grow as a researcher, and I think I’m better for having made them. The example I gave to show this was the week I spent around November last year reading psychology literature, something that I thought would be useful but ended up being a bit of a dead-end. Although it was a week I could have better spent on more relevent literature, the experience has helped me to identify other areas that at first seem interesting but ultimately don’t contribute much to my project. My answer to his question is a symptom of the optimism that I try to make my default position on everything. Things go wrong, and we can’t help that – we’re only human after all – but what we can do is put our mistakes down to experience and try not to repeat them.

I have done plenty of good things though, which far outweigh the mistakes. My research has come on really well, with a finished database and a solid theoretical base. I have had some presentation experience, at the OU and at Cirencester Museum, which will stand me in great stead when I start speaking at academic conferences this year (hopefully more on that in a later blog). I have also been teaching with the Brilliant Club, which has given me a fantastic opportunity to introduce students at three secondary schools to the ancient world – something I didn’t get the chance to study at my own school. Teaching students aged between 11 and 18 has given me a new perspective on the material I study, and has forced me to think about Roman religion in new ways. It has also been great fun, and I’d recommend any PhD student get in contact with the Brilliant Club and give it a go!

Last, but not least, I count this blog as one of my successes. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, because writing it has certainly helped me clear up some of my ideas about ancient cursing. It will continue to post as reguarly as possible, and I’d love your feedback too! If you have any suggestions, comments or questions about what I post, about Brilliant Club teaching, about doing a PhD or anything else, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page or send me a tweet.

Here’s to the next two years!

I'll try!


I am quite a lucky person. That’s true of many facts of my life, but it’s one particular aspect that I’ve been immensely thankful for over the first year of my PhD research. I have techno-joy. The idea comes from Eddie Izzard, who splits people into two camps – techno-fear and techno-joy. Those of us with joy will gleefully sit in front of new tech and click away, experimenting with shiny new buttons until we get the right result or accidentally delete the internet – usually the former.

Techno-joy effects non-humans too.

My techno-joy has helped me learn a host of new things that have become vital to my research, from organising my bibliography with EndNote to making detailed distribution maps of curse tablet find sites on Adobe Illustrator. It’s also been instrumental in getting me used to writing blogs, and I’m now really happy getting these posts to look as good as possible whilst still communicating information I hope people will want to read!

This is all great, but the most important thing I’ve been able to do is create a database of every curse tablet from my study area. Unfortunately, curses have been somewhat neglected by historians and archaeologists over the past century or so, meaning that the places they get published tend to be either old and hard to come by, or in such obscure journals that few libraries have them in their collections. Thanks to wonderful modern tech however, whenever I have managed to track a publication down I have entered all the information onto my digital database so it’s there for my constant reference. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m about finished digging in library basements, and the final total for curses from Roman Gaul, Germany and Britain stands at just over 300 – many fragmentary or unreadable, but a good number with texts long enough to get some juicy social and religious information about the people who were making them.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

Having all the curses on a single database means I can quickly see patterns, and trends, like how the theft of clothing is the most common motive for cursing at Bath, but virtually non-existent in Mainz. I am getting useful data about gender, ethnicity and social status too, which will form the core of my social interpretations of the curses.

I still have a lot to learn, and I’m slowly making my way through books and online courses about the finer points of database creation and management. If you are a database wizard, I would love to hear your top tips – send me a message or write in the comments section below. Equally, if you’re just dipping your toe in the wonderful world of digital humanities for the first time and want some advice, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do!

The busy life of a PhD student

I’m really bad at blogging regularly – oops! Despite the outwards impression I might sometimes give, I’ve been really busy these past few months, and although I’ve thought about blogging now and then I’ve only managed to get around to it today.

So, what have I been doing since January?

The short and obvious answer is “my PhD.” Actually it’s surprisingly hard to break down the specific things I have been doing, because a PhD is such a huge project that you end up doing random little tasks for a day or two, and then sort of forgetting about them. Like the days I spent going back through all 200 curses on my database adding one piece of information that I’d left out the first time. Or the day I drove up to Milton Keynes to the library for a book, only to realise on reading it that it was barely relevant.

Having said that, there are plenty of productive things I have done. The biggest is the aforementioned database, which currently includes 260 curse tablets from Britainnia, Gaul and Germania. It’s not finished yet – I know of at least 30 I need to add, and no doubt there are more to find in obscure epigraphy journals written 100 years ago. I also have a table on my database with over 300 personal names from the tablets, sorted by gender, ethnicity and social status. This is the sort of thing I’m really interested in, as hopefully it will give me some insights into the kinds of people who were using curses at different times and places.

I have also been reading – a lot. There’s always more too, and the end of my ‘to read’ list constantly eludes me, like a bank note on a string.

(C’mon, you know that’s still funny…)

I’ve also started writing. My probation report – basically a draft of my first chapter, including a literature review – is due in the next couple of months, and I’m giving a few papers at internal seminars and conferences. I might post bits and pieces of my writing on here, we’ll see how that goes!

Oh, and I’ve also been teaching! I’m now a tutor for the Brilliant Club, an organisation that puts PhD students in schools with low participation in higher education. To any PhD students reading this blog, I cannot recommend them highly enough. If you really want a challenge and some excellent experience, get involved!

So, a very packed few months, and it will only get more busy as we get closer summer and the end of my first year. I will try to blog more, please let me know if you’ve got any questions or any feedback on the what I post! My twitter is on the side bar, and there’s the feedback form too 🙂