Montag, 13. März 2017

And now for something completely different… Social Media and Internet Presence

A weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki and Laura Borghetti.

Heidelberg, February 27th, 8:30 AM. An Egyptologist, a Classical Philologist, a Byzantine Philologist and a Near Eastern Archaeologist walk into a room of female mathematicians. This is not the beginning of a joke, but of the two-day workshop in this ancient university town. In the elegant conference room of ArtHotel, a few puzzled gazes fly towards us, the only four girls from the Humanities. "So... what brought you here?" we are repeatedly asked. Considering that we are at the Third Networking and Mentoring Workshop for Women in Mathematics, the four of us agree it is a legitimate question. What brought us here, we always reply, is the theme of this workshop: Social Media and Internet Presence.

Fig. 1: From left: Mari Yamasaki, Laura Borghetti, Simone Gerhards, Gabriela Meyer and Katharina Hillenbrand (Photo by Maria Ruprecht).

To understand our answer, here’s a little background. When our GRK started, it was agreed that the best way of engaging with the general public would be through a weblog – the very same you are reading right now. After a few years, we came to realize that in order to reach more people, this could use some improvement and maybe could be supported by another social media platform. After some discussion and considering how most of us are to some extent familiar with it, we decided that an official Facebook page could fill this "supporting role". However, far from being experts, we looked forward to this workshop to find inspiration as to how we should pursue our goal.

The two key-roles of this initiative have been played by Maria Rupprecht, Executive Networking Coordinator at the Ruprecht-Karls Universität in Heidelberg within "Upstream – the Network for Women in Maths" and Gabriela Meyer, expert in communication, publicist and trainer in public relations. Thanks to their professionalism and friendliness, and during an intense but exciting two-days program, it was made possible to break the general suspicion against social networks and animate a lively brainstorming about this new form of media. Concepts of different kind of social medias, from the rather job search-oriented Xing to the more popular Twitter, from the online business card to the web-storytelling in travel-blogs: all were taken as practical examples during the workshop. Even more interesting was the rather interactive side of our meeting, when we participants were asked to create new accounts or to improve our own existing ones. 

Making use of the opportunity of having an expert at hand, we volunteered to present our weblog as a case study of the use of social media to support scientific engagement with the wider public. Ms. Meyer showed us the strong points of our page and (most importantly) the weak ones. While not touching the merit of the scientific and educational content, she gave us advice on how we could modify its layout to make it more appealing for the casual and the expert reader alike. We were able to collect much input and many good ideas that will need a little bit of time to be implemented, but changes are coming, so keep following us! One novelty is already out there: check out our new Facebook page

Fig. 2: Katharina Hillenbrand and Simone Gerhards showing our Weblog to Gabriela Meyer (Photo by Maria Ruprecht).

As we saw during these two days, the poor reputation for Social Media often comes from a misuse of their potential. For instance, the flood of breakfast photos on Instagram or of cat jokes on Facebook devalues these platforms. Much worse, social media are sadly the fastest way to spread false and unverified news. For these reasons, it is even more important to implement the use of this technology to disseminate scientific knowledge in an attractive and accessible way. The decision to adopt a popular platform such as Facebook in parallel with our official weblog serves exactly this purpose. Not only to give fast and concise updates on the research that our Graduiertenkolleg is working on, but also to promptly inform our readers about cultural initiatives the doctoral students take part in, and why not, to get to know us. For research is not an abstract entity detached from the world, but it is made of people, of colleagues and friends, even if virtual.

Montag, 6. März 2017

The Oxford Byzantine Society’s 19th International Graduate Conference: Circulation and Transmission of Ideas between Past and Present

A weblog entry by Laura Borghetti.

When it comes to cultural vivacity and exchange of knowledge, very few places are as inspiring as Oxford, UK. Colleges and faculties, enclosed in solemn and slender gothic buildings, shape the almost magical profile of the old city (fig. 1). Visitors, especially scholars, get the feeling of walking along a huge, lively university campus that romantically tastes like the Middle Ages. In such atmosphere, from February the 24th till 25th 2017, took place The Oxford University Byzantine Society's 19th International Graduate Conference, with a title that perfectly matches Oxford's vivacious academic environment: "Transmitting and Circulating the Late Antiquity and Byzantine Worlds".

Fig. 1: Some views of Oxford (from the left): Inner courtyard in Exeter College, the main door of the History Faculty with the Conference's poster, the Dome of the Radcliffe Camera. (Photos by Laura Borghetti)

Given the vastness of the late Roman and Byzantine Empires in terms of both territorial extent and cultural variety, the circulation and transmission of ideas, people, texts and objects played a decisive role in creating a political, economic and religious network which – in turn – ensured the unity of both empires for more than ten centuries. Closely mirroring the byzantine millennium, the program of the conference was extremely various and fascinating: more than fifty papers, concerning byzantine philology, history, art and archaeology – divided in two simultaneous sessions – allowed the participants shape a quite comprehensive portrait of the modalities, frequency and different means of cultural transmission in Byzantium.

The lively brainstorming after each speaker's presentation was enough evidence for how effective this conference was in stimulating the exchange of knowledge and the circulation of new ideas. Especially, given the participation of only graduate students, the brainstorming related to still in-progress projects could inspire, in both the speakers and the rest of participants, new points of view, perspectives and approaches that might be useful to each individual research.

The chance to take a small part in the organization of such an event has for me been both an honour and a pleasure: following Mirela Ivanova's friendly but firm directions (Mirela is an Oxford PhD student and the president of the Oxford University Byzantine Society during this academic year), the Oxford graduates' crew took care of organising participants' invitations and accommodation and arranging delicious coffee breaks, meals and evening wine receptions. I personally could enjoy some unskilled labour such as cutting paper badges or preparing coffee for the guests. As an Italian assiduous coffee-drinker, I took this last task pretty much seriously (fig. 2). 

Fig. 2: Mirela Ivanova and Laura Borghetti in the common room of the History Faculty. (Photo by Laura Borghetti)
The most challenging side in the whole organising process was surely gathering the speakers from all over the world. From Great Britain to Turkey, from Italy to Japan, this conference has shown how the circulation and the transmission of ideas and people in Byzantium many centuries ago still manages, nowadays, to instigate the transmission of old ideas and new, and circulation of people and their gathering to exchange ideas.

Freitag, 3. März 2017

Environment, Landscape and Society; Diachronic perspectives on settlement patterns in Cyprus

A weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

For nearly four decades, the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) has been central to the archaeology of the island. It functions as the aggregating point for the many international scholars conducting fieldwork and study seasons in Cyprus, often hosting lectures in which the most recent results can be promptly presented to an audience of peers. In the course of its life, CAARI has always maintained continuous and profitable cooperation with the Cypriot Department of Antiquities and, since its foundation in 2005, with The Cyprus Institute; cooperation that once again was key to the success of the conference held between the 17th and the 19th of February 2017, titled "Environment, Landscape and Society. Diachronic perspectives on settlement patterns in Cyprus" (fig. 1).

Figure 1: "Conference logo: Vermeule, E. & Karageorgis, V., 1982. Mycenaean pictorial vase painting, Cambridge, MA. (p.46, ill. V.39) – Amphoroid krater from Enkomi (LHIIIB)"

In line with its tradition, on this occasion, speakers from all over the globe convened in Nicosia to discuss theories, methods and future perspectives of Landscape Studies. This event was made possible thanks to the tireless work of CAARI Director Andrew McCarthy (fig. 2) and his staff, and a generous financial contribution by the US Embassy in Cyprus.

Figure 2: Director of CAARI Andrew McCarthy, PhD with the author. (Photo by Katerina Mavromichalou)

The motivation for organizing such a conference was to bring together scholars with different scientific backgrounds, working on a diversity of projects in Cyprus and the Aegean, to tackle the universal question: what is the impetus of settlement? In other words: can we identify a set of environmental/cultural/economic conditions that need to be fulfilled to have a settlement? And are these universal or specific to each case?

Twenty-seven papers were presented in six chronologically ordered sessions. Case studies spanned from the Aceramic Neolithic to the Late Byzantine Period. Environment, landscape and the changes in society were tackled from a variety of perspectives, either investigating what role the first had in shaping the latter, or the importance of Big Data Analysis in studying how people moved across their landscape and why. Another important aspect that emerged from these talks, is how archaeobotanical and isotopic analysis as well as geomorphology can help in reconstructing ancient landscapes.

Professor James C. Wright, Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College and Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, opened the event with the keynote lecture "The Longue Durée: the piedmont of the Corinthia and cycles of regional occupation". He introduced the controversial role that has been attributed to the environment in influencing human choices, with positions bordering environmental determinism on one side, and extreme relativism on the other.

The weight of environmental conditions in the choice of settlement is particularly evident in the study of pre- and protohistoric cultures. In most instances, as one would expect, the favourable location allowing easy access to a different set of resources appeared to be the decisive factor in the choice of settlement. However, in other cases the choice for a particular place was seemingly unrelated to its economic exploitability and the reasons need to be looked for in terms of symbolic value, tradition and social memory.

Mechanisms of occupation, movement, aggregation and abandonment were matters of lively discussion, with special focus on the effects of climate change. It was pointed out that in regards to Cyprus, information on ancient climate changes still relies on Near Eastern proxies and the impact of the climatic events recorded, for example, in the Tell Leilan cores need to be carefully evaluated. What was clear from each one of the presented case studies was that the sheer number of variables that intervene into settlement occupation/abandonment are such that it would be overly simplistic to attribute societal change solely to environmental factors – however big they may be – or to underestimate the role that climatic events – however small – may have on community life in the short term.

To gain a better picture of environment, landscape and society, it is therefore necessary to have a holistic approach that takes into consideration evidences of human activities, faunal and botanical remains, geomorphological, climatic factors, settlement patterns and much more. To deal with this huge variety of information, Big Data and information technologies have grown in importance over the last decade to go "beyond the dots", as Francesca Chelazzi (PhD, University of Glasgow) eloquently showed in her paper. The use of geographic information systems (GIS) is more and more being implemented to investigate the spatial and diachronic development of the landscape, to pose new questions on the relations underlying the patterns of distribution of cultural material and settlements alike. Studies on regionalism in the pottery production during the Chalcolithic, as illustrated by Harry Paraskeva (PhD, University of Cyprus), or the function of sanctuaries as boundaries between for the Iron Age City Kingdoms were just two examples of the potential of GIS combined with more traditional ceramics study. GIS has proven to be a key to interpret data from surveys such as the ASESP Project concerning the relations of settlement and defensive structures along the Yialias River, presented by Despina Pilides (Curator of Antiquities, of the Department of Antiquities) and Eiliš Monahan (PhD Candidate, Cornell University), or Professor Oliva Menozzi’s (Universitá G. D’Annunzio, Chieti - fig. 3) presentation and posters of a large-scale survey in the Moni catchment area, within the MPM Project. Both these archaeological projects would deserve to be treated in detail in merit of their ground-breaking research and, also as an active member of both missions, it is the author's hope to dedicate a full article to them in the near future. 

Figure 3: Professor Oliva Menozzi (Universitá G. D’Annunzio, Chieti) with the author, posing in front of the poster by V. Carniel, S. Caggiano, G. Di Camillo, O. Menozzi, M. Yamasaki, L. Mariangeli, "Underwater surveys: archaeological and geomorphological results". (Photo by Katerina Marvomichalou)

Isotopic analysis can provide some insight concerning the ancient diet and consequently, on the ecosystem that surrounded these ancient populations when integrated with palaeobotanical and palaeoenvironmental studies. This approach was presented with a case study from the MBA site of Erimi Laonin tou Porakou, excavated by the Kouris Valley Project, where the study of stable isotopes and the spatial analysis of the Kourin River catchment provided a plausible reconstruction of the ancient landscape. The paper was co-authored by C. Sciré-Calabrisotto (fig. 4) (Stable Isotope Analysis, Universitá Ca' Foscari di Venezia), E. Margaritis (Archaeobotanic remains, The Cyprus Institute), M. Yamasaki (Spacial analysis, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, whose participation to this conference was made possible by the generous travel grant by GRK1876 "Frühe Konzepte von Mensch und Natur") , and L. Bombardieri (Project Director, Universitá degli Studi di Torino).

Figure 4: Caterina Sciré-Calabrisotto (Universitá Ca' Foscari di Venezia) presenting the paper co-authored by C. Scirè Calabrisotto, E. Margaritis, M. Yamasaki and L. Bombardieri, "Drifting down the big still river. Erimi Laonin tou Porakou in its ecological context during the Middle Bronze Age". (Photo by Katerina Mavromichalou)

A variety of scientifically sound approaches was presented concerning the motives and mechanisms of settlement, but one must not forget the cultural element in defining the landscape. As Professor Thierry Petit (Université Laval) said in his talk "From Royal Palace to Forlorn Kastro": when does space become place? Social memory and the construction of shared identities, the creation of points of aggregation by human communities charge previously empty areas with meaning and turn geographic spaces into symbolic places.

At the end of these fascinating three days, the conference’s conclusive paper was delivered by Prof. Michael Given of the University of Glasgow. The landscape really is an infinite web of interactions, but we have made such a habit of reducing and standardizing them that our perception of diversity ends up eventually flattened. The roman deforestation of the Troodos foothills for copper extraction and the modern sand mines that hacked into the Yialias aquifer and its water table are just some examples of the dramatic consequences of this flattened perception. Today more than ever, in a moment of runaway climate change, archaeology – from its privileged four dimensional viewpoints – should engage with the landscape and its interactions and not reduce it to mere points on a map. It should be approached in terms of nodes of interaction, routes and mobility across it, the composition of its surfaces and volume and, finally, through its tremendous variations across time.

The nodes of interactions are intended as those areas that show a richness and diversity of life, soils, activities, morphology, etc. The way people and animals move across a territory and the possibility of taking a route instead of another are fundamental elements to understand how the landscape is shaped and inhabited. As for the composition of surfaces, this aspect concerns the way soils are formed through all the activities of geological, botanical, faunal and human life, from worms to ploughing. For example, it is at this level of interaction that we find pottery sherds and material culture remains. Volumes comprise every transformation in the three dimensions, not only in the depths of the ground (where the accumulation of surfaces originates a stratigraphic sequence, which is a volume of typical archaeological interest), but also in the air, with its sounds, smells, and 
 more recently  pollution. The many changes of a landscape through time are also essential parts of it, as past interactions inevitably have repercussions in the future ones. An example is the case study presented by Prof. Kassianidou (University of Cyprus): the effects of the massive deforestation of the Solea Valley for the Roman copper industry were still visible on the territory until the early 20th Century, when they were in turn obliterated by the modern copper mines. Nevertheless, time variations include smaller, seasonal changes, which are equally important to understand the reasons behind the occupation of a given area. 

Even though this is not the place to explore in detail all the implications of these five components, at least a few words need to be spent on the last element, as there can be no better example for Prof. Given’s four-dimensionality of landscape than Cyprus itself. Upon arrival on a chilly February afternoon, it was impossible to ignore how strikingly different the island appeared compared to how most foreign archaeologists (myself included) are used to know it for. In fact, since most excavations take place from May to October, in the archaeologist’s (and in the tourist’s) imagination, Cyprus is a dusty, dry and scorching hot expanse in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the lush, bright green fields, with their spots of yellow and white wild flowers proved just how diverse a single, ought-to-be-familiar landscape can be, even within a few months difference (fig. 5, 6). 

Figure 5: View of Barsak from Ayios Sozomenos Ambelia in Semptember 2016. (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Figure 6:  View of the Ayios Sozomenos area from Barsak in February 2017. (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)