What lies beneath Achill-henge?


Achill-henge. Photo by Seequinn

It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is access­ible world­wide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an intro­duc­tion to the story. You can also listen to the radio pro­gramme (world­wide I think) with the rel­ev­ant seg­ment at 6m04s.

It’s not a bad story, but from an archae­olo­gical point of view it misses the most inter­est­ing things. Firstly build­ing this ertsatz archae­olo­gical site may have dam­aged a real site. Usually before con­struc­tion there will be test digs to check the con­struc­tion won’t des­troy some­thing of his­tor­ical import­ance. Achill is an extremely sens­it­ive archae­olo­gical site. There’s a long run­ning field school there because it has such a rich archae­olo­gical record. If you’re a fan of pre­his­toric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk des­troy­ing one to make a copy.

The second thing is the tem­plate chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as any­one who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of tri­lithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the pre­his­toric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becom­ing clear that there are dis­tinct­ive dif­fer­ences in tra­di­tions around the islands.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack

This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recum­bent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them any­where else. There is a pos­sible astro­nom­ical align­ment. These circles tend to be set up so that the sum­mer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recum­bent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter

This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s com­pact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the oppos­ite side to the recum­bent stone. This is more typ­ical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a delib­er­ate a portal for entry. The astro­nom­ical align­ments are dif­fer­ent for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an align­ment to winter sol­stice sunset.

Even though they look sim­ilar, these stone circles could be telling us very dif­fer­ent things about belief. If we trust the pat­terns emer­ging from study­ing groups of monu­ments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost oppos­ites. The key event in Scotland seems to hap­pen with the Moon in sum­mer. In Ireland they’re look­ing to the Sun in winter.

There’s an ongo­ing argu­ment about whether sum­mer sun­rise or winter sun­set was more import­ant at Stonehenge. I favour winter sun­set, but to some extent this is just as reflect­ive of how you view pre­his­toric life as it is about the data. In addi­tion there’s plenty of evid­ence show­ing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remod­elled, includ­ing a pos­sible shift from lunar to solar alignments.

In any event whatever the tra­di­tion was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflect­ive of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embed­ded as an iconic brand for pre­his­toric archae­ology in the British Isles, that British pre­his­tory is now col­on­ising per­cep­tions of what a pre­his­toric Ireland would look like.

I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inven­tions, and some archae­olo­gists will cringe at the idea of a pre­his­toric Ireland or UK. Recognising mod­ern bound­ar­ies don’t apply to the past is a sens­ible fea­ture. At the same time an appeal­ing com­mon past does risk los­ing some of what makes places loc­ally distinctive.

Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

Teaching with Social Media

Road building in Nepal
Road building in Nepal

Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal, surely a path to enlight­en­ment? Photo by rpb1001.

I think I took my PhD at Leicester at almost exactly the right time — if you ignore the cata­strophic down­turn in edu­ca­tion fund­ing. The reason is I’ve had the oppor­tun­ity to work with a few people who have been inspir­ingly innov­at­ive in their teach­ing. Derek Raine intro­duced me to Problem-Based Learning, when he built a new degree in Interdisciplinary Science around it. +A.J. Cann also help by let­ting me help out on some of his numer­acy / study skills courses for Biological Sciences and that’s what he’s blog­ging about today at Of Schemes and Memes and on his own blog at Science of the Invisible.

I’m sure I’ve had plenty of study skills train­ing but I don’t remem­ber much of it. At its worst it was a part of the first year course teach­ing how to use vari­ous sys­tems I might want to use in the third year. By which time the sys­tem might well have changed or else I would have for­got­ten it through lack of use. I don’t do well if I have do some­thing in order to learn how to use a sys­tem. I work bet­ter if I learn how to use a sys­tem in order to do some­thing else.

Alan Cann has a focus on how and why stu­dents want to learn some­thing. To explain the dif­fer­ence, when I was taught I might be shown how to use PubMed. Fill in all the boxes and that’s a pass. In con­trast Alan sets tasks that have a pur­pose and explains PubMed or Web of Knowledge are the easi­est ways to get the inform­a­tion stu­dents need. The cleverest part is that this is wrapped up with social media icing.

Getting cohorts onto Google+ gets them think­ing about pri­vacy, but also makes com­mu­nic­a­tion online a more nat­ural act. Students can build their own sup­port struc­tures. These become more import­ant as the stu­dents move toward inde­pend­ent study later in their degree. Another clever thing work­ing through social media does is it helps dis­solve bar­ri­ers between modules.

In my first degree what I learned in mod­ule A applied to mod­ule A. What I learned in Module B applied to Module B. I wasn’t mak­ing con­nec­tions between the two. On Google+ the work their is for Alan’s mod­ule, but stu­dents dis­cuss more than that. They’ll talk about other mod­ules and make con­nec­tions about why some­thing puzz­ling is hap­pen­ing because we know from this mod­ule that this occurs so when you apply it to that lab exper­i­ment you should expect that and so on.

Another fea­ture is that Alan doesn’t give the same course twice. He’ll drop what thinks doesn’t work and come up with some­thing bet­ter. This shouldn’t be rad­ical. I’ve been on count­less courses as a post-grad that talk about the import­ance of reflec­tion in teach­ing. Usually this reflec­tion in the sense of “how can you bet­ter guide stu­dents along the path to enlight­en­ment?” Alan and Derek have both taken the approach that ques­tions if the path is right in the first place. Even if it’s basic­ally sound, do we need all these wig­gly detours to des­tin­a­tions no one vis­its anymore?

This post is a good entry point to some of what Alan is doing with teach­ing. Science of the Invisible is the place to go if you want to read more.

Photo: Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal by rpb1001. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

This post also appears on Google+.

Thony Christie on Hevelius

Scutum constellation in the Uranographia

If you have any interest in the his­tory of astro­nomy you should be fol­low­ing The Renaissance Mathematicus blog and this post, The last great naked eye astro­nomer, is a per­fect example of why. This is a post about Johannes Hevelius who has to be one of the most fam­ous unheard of astro­nomers ever.

That doesn’t make sense I know. There are a lot of people who haven’t heard of Hevelius, but if you have heard of Hevelius, then the idea that people haven’t heard of him seems non­sense because his work is every­where in astronomy.

Scutum constellation in the Uranographia

Scutum in the Uranographia by Hevelius. Source: Wikipedia.

Everyone’s happy that most con­stel­la­tions are ancient, but what is less well-known is that not every star was in a con­stel­la­tion. There were gaps between con­stel­la­tions filled with faint and bor­ing stars. These were called αμορφοι amorphoi or unformed stars by the Greeks. This is no good if you want to do sci­ence, because things like comets don’t stick to the inter­est­ing parts of the sky. That’s why map­ping was so import­ant in the Renaissance. In the case of Hevelius, his maps were so use­ful that he formed seven con­stel­la­tions that stay with us to this day.

I’ll admit con­stel­la­tions like Lacerta or Vulpecula aren’t fam­ous con­stel­la­tions, but he was work­ing with the haps between con­stel­la­tions. The fact that his charts were made of con­stel­la­tions vis­ible in Europe shows he was work­ing in a highly com­pet­it­ive space.

It’s easy to take this kind of work for gran­ted. The out­put can be seen as an uncon­tested fact, but Thony’s post put’s Hevelius’s work into the con­text of its time includ­ing the often intense sci­entific rivalry between astro­nomer defend­ing per­sonal and national status.

The also shows that while with hind­sight it seems obvi­ous that tele­scopes would bring more accur­ate meas­ure­ments, at any given time in his­tory it’s not always obvi­ous that new tech­no­logy is The Next Big Thing, it could be a dis­trac­tion or Expensive Dead End.

What’s the difference between archaeology and grave-robbing?

HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy
HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy

Loss of HMS Victory, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy

The HMS Victory (not that one) is set to be recovered accord­ing to the BBC and many other sites. You could say speed. Archaeology is an enorm­ously inef­fi­cient of rob­bing graves. These days archae­olo­gists can take years to study one bar­row (an earth mound mark­ing a burial) while in the 18th cen­tury aris­to­crats used to go on pic­nics and have the work­men open up one or two in an after­noon for gold.

There is a deeper reason.

Archaeologists are so slow because they want to say some­thing about the people who live there. There’s a great Paul Bahn line: Archaeology is not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out. Obviously find­ing things out is easier if you find arte­facts with people and that’s why sud­den dis­asters are great from an archae­olo­gical point of view.

It doesn’t stop a dis­aster site effect­ively being a grave. If you’re genu­inely inter­ested in find­ing out about people, it’s would be odd if you didn’t give a damn about their grave. Digging up a site is effect­ively des­troy­ing it.* If you’re going to do that you’ll want to go slowly and make sure that the story you can tell about this person’s life is a bet­ter memorial than the one he or she already has.

The news stor­ies this week­end are all about find­ing the ship, along with a brief men­tion of the up to £500 mil­lion value of gold on board. What they don’t men­tion is that the UK gov­ern­ment has sanc­tioned the recov­ery in exchange for 20% of that. Is the gov­ern­ment more inter­ested in the treas­ure, or has it developed a keen interest in archae­ology so that, as Lord Lingfield says: “We hope it will give a unique insight into the world of the mid-18th cen­tury Royal Navy.

The answer can be found in this story from October 2011 in the Daily Mail.

Odyssey said yes­ter­day the UK gov­ern­ment was ‘des­per­ately look­ing for new sources of income’ and was urging it to find more British wrecks. It is also invest­ig­at­ing HMS Sussex, lost off Gibraltar with 10 tons of gold in 1694, and HMS Victory, a pre­cursor to Nelson’s flagship.

There are thou­sands of deser­ted medi­eval vil­lages in the UK. In the 21st cen­tury the biggest defence any buri­als in them have have against feed­ing bankers is that the fin­an­cial pay­off of crack­ing them open is too low.

*Not hyper­bolae. It’s recog­nised by pro­fes­sional archae­olo­gists then if you dig up some­thing it’s not going to be there for someone else to dig. +Kris Hirst col­lects quotes on her site, and a great one from Kent Flannery is: “Archeology is the only branch of anthro­po­logy where we kill our inform­ants in the pro­cess of study­ing them.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

One small slip for man, one giant mistake for space heritage?

Jim Lovell reading a newspaper story about the Apollo 13 mission

There’s a check­list from the Apollo XIII mis­sion owned(?) by Jim Lovell. It’s an inter­est­ing puzzle from an astro-heritage point of view and some­thing I’ve not given any thought to at all. In fact there’s two puzzles. One is legal own­er­ship and the other is what her­it­age value does it have and neither ques­tion is con­nec­ted much. The only con­nec­tion I see is that if there is no her­it­age value then people won’t get worked up too much about the ownership.

Jim Lovell reading a newspaper story about the Apollo 13 mission

Jim Lovell dis­cov­ers he got back to Earth safely thanks to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Photo: NASA.

I get the impres­sion NASA would have been within their rights to claim own­er­ship, but if they allowed astro­nauts to keep memen­tos, then that’s their mis­take. I’m sur­prised that a check­list with cru­cial cal­cu­la­tions was dis­carded from a failed mis­sion, but I don’t know the exact cir­cum­stances of how Jim Lovell got to keep it, but it seems NASA wasn’t that her­it­age aware at the time.

At the same time I don’t know what her­it­age value it has. Heritage value isn’t the same as his­tor­ical or archae­olo­gical value. While the cal­cu­la­tions are his­tor­ic­ally import­ant, is the paper that holds them neces­sary to under­stand the his­tory of the trip?

What I can see is that there’s a big emo­tional hit with the arte­fact. Seeing the authen­tic arte­fact puts you vicari­ously in a pos­i­tion of being in deep trouble in deep space. The emo­tional value is noth­ing to be sneered at. It’s part of being human and it’s going to play a part in dis­cus­sions whether you dir­ectly address it or not. A sens­ible con­clu­sion is going to have to deal with the emo­tional and exper­i­en­tial side of the checklist.

For those who think the answer is obvi­ous, this is tax-payer fun­ded mater­ial there­fore the tax-payer owns it, here’s another puzzle. Suppose an Apollo astro­naut gets paid to endorse Moon Juice a new fizzy sugar-laden drink. The only reason he is get­ting the job is because tax-payers fun­ded him to go to the moon. Does that mean that the tax-payers should get the fee and not the astro­naut? It’s not an exact ana­logy, this is a mater­ial arte­fact. Yet if it’s an arte­fact that was going to be dis­carded by NASA it wrong for an astro­naut to own it, or is it a bet­ter solu­tion that nobody owns it? Should Mitchell’s cam­era have been left on the Moon where no one could access it?

I don’t see an obvi­ous answer that sat­is­fies every­one. Another good piece by +Amy Shira Teitel.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

Cervix watching


Emily Baldwin @astroemz on Twitter is going in for a loop excision next week to remove pre-cancerous cells from her cer­vix. As she says it’s a routine oper­a­tion, but it’s only routine for the pro­fes­sion­als. It’s not routine for her so she is under­stand­ably nervous. She’s blog­ging on what hap­pens to help raise aware­ness of the import­ance of cer­vical smears under the twit­ter hashtag #cer­vix­watch.

I think this is one of those situ­ations where put­ting thoughts into writ­ing can help. I had a routine oper­a­tion to remove a kind of can­cer that Emily will never get, and some­times it’s wor­ry­ing. The raw stat­ist­ics are that almost every­one has no trouble, so you can feel silly for being anxious. Still, I woke up one night in a small puddle of my own blood I was a bit con­cerned. After think­ing about how to write this up I real­ised I’d be even more wor­ried if I’d woken up in a puddle of someone else’s blood. This kind of detach­ment made it easier to cope with waiting.

It’s easier to be detached when some­thing is over too. I think put­ting inform­a­tion online before the out­come is known is brave. It’s a per­sonal exper­i­ence and con­fess­ing fears can make you feel more vul­ner­able. I don’t ima­gine it’s a huge help that the cells might be pre-cancerous, mean­ing it’s not actu­ally can­cer. The c-word is still there but because it’s pre– you could feel fool­ish for wor­ry­ing about it. Oddly I’m told it’s a com­mon thing among can­cer patients to feel guilty because you know other people have had it worse. In Emily’s blog I see some­thing sim­ilar. She doesn’t want to over­play the situ­ation, but she’s still per­fectly entitled to be anxious and some of her post explains why.

In my case other people def­in­itely have had it worse than me. The sad­dest memory I have is from the wait­ing room when I had chemo­ther­apy. There weren’t enough seats, so the polite thing to do was to stand and let the people with can­cer sit down. There were a lot of people there in a much worse way than me and they didn’t all have can­cer. I felt tired in my muscles all the time, like I’d been swim­ming all day, but I wasn’t as run down as some of the carers, so I stood up to give one of them a seat. It was heart­break­ing to see how shattered they were look­ing after someone they loved. Many of them were clearly in dire need of a rest, and for some of them it was never going to get any better.

Compared to that a bit of embar­rass­ment and worry is a bar­gain. If you’re female and you’re squeam­ish at the thought of smear tests or think you really shouldn’t make a fuss about some­thing like that, then you should fol­low Emily’s blog over the next few weeks to see if it’s really worth risk­ing dying of embarrassment.

…and as a follow-up she now has her exper­i­ence online.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.