A Pint of Science

Last night we went to a science festival in a pub. Specifically, we went to The Boathouse for a Pint of Science session. This is a series of talks by scientists in different fields, with the talks grouped around a particular theme. Six venues have a session each over the three days of the festival, and I believe each session has three talks, for a total of 54. Ours was Into the Darkness, which was about death. My background being mainly in funerary archaeology, I was really interested to see what would come up; I was familiar with the work of two of the three speakers and excited to hear more.


The talk sold out — indeed, I believe every session sold out, which is pretty impressive considering this is all also happening during the Cambridge Beer Festival. The venue for our talk was the upstairs room at the Boathouse; I used to game there, which was a slightly odd contrast. They even had a special beer for the festival, which I did not have any of. Again, clever.

One unusual feature of this festival is that each speaker is paired with an artist who creates something based on the subject of the talk. There’s an exhibit of these artworks on Thursday, so if you’re reading this in Cambridge there’s still time to check them out. It’s free!

I’m not going to go into huge detail about the talks: I took 12 pages of notes, though, so there was a lot to take in. This is just edited highlights.

First up was Dr Corinne Duhig, who talked about her experiences as a forensic archaeologist/anthropologist in Kosovo. Way back in 2007, I co-edited a volume of ARC about “the disturbing past” — Ian Hanson wrote a fascinating piece on the same topic for it. People who know more about forensic archaeology than I do were probably less alarmed by phrases like “then, in went the mine-detecting dogs.” The centre of the piece was “the clothesline,” which was also the topic of the painting by Barbara Nasto that went with this piece. Once the investigation was done, Duhig and her colleagues washed the victims’ clothes and the blankets their bodies were wrapped in, then hung them up on a long series of clotheslines outside the morgue. Bereaved relatives would walk along the ever-lengthening rows looking for clothes that had belonged to their loved ones. The painting is a bright scene of colourful blankets hanging on a line with a bright red building or shipping container in the background; the container is full of dead bodies and the blankets are from murder victims’ graves. I was particularly struck when someone asked Dr Duhig about her motivation and she replied “hatred.” She also told a story about going to the Hague to a different part of the war-crimes tribunal just to get close to Slobodan Milosevic — “to get as close as possible to … one’s enemy, I suppose.”

I thought Duhig was going to be a tough act to follow, but I had confidence in Dr John Robb, who did not disappoint. His talk was on “how to achieve a social life after death” and was about the active role that the dead continue to play in the social lives of communities — and how modern Western society, in which this is downplayed, is really the exception rather than the norm. However, he pointed out that “we believe different things that are incompatible” about the dead — we simultaneously view death as an instant transition to an inanimate state and we treat the dead as if they’re still around. Consider the idea of “owing something” to the dead — it’s ridiculous to think you can owe something to an inanimate object. He also mentioned the story of a woman who received texts from her dead grandmother, the precaution of burying Osama bin Laden at sea, and the Hand of Glory, so this was a wide-ranging talk. I was pleased to see the “Robb Scale of Research Believability” which ranges from “Publish in Nature” at one end to “mention in the pub, but only after five pints; deny at all other times.” The accompanying artwork by Liza Read was a hologram in a little black casket; once you got close enough to look at it, you saw a little frog skeleton staring back at you. It reminded me (intentionally?) of Dead Like Me: 

Last up was Professor Clive Oppenheimer, who talked about volcanoes, their potential for death and destruction and the ways in which this is sometimes overlooked — but also some of the good sides(?). I had much less background in this one, and I’m sure there are things I didn’t know that would be obvious to someone who knew anything about the subject — like that 10% of the world’s population lives within a relatively short distance (100 km?) of a volcano. I also discovered that Cambridge contains something called the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which studies events that could wipe out the human race. That is baller extreme. I missed the name of the artists who created the “Angry Mountain Pendant” that went with this talk, though.

So yeah — three great talks, audience seemed to like it, congenial surroundings, home in time for bed. There was also a pub quiz; I missed one question, but still won a t-shirt. My wife won a goodie bag that also contained a t-shirt as well as various other goodies; notepad, pen, that kind of thing.

There are no more spaces left for this year’s talks, but I definitely recommend it for next year.

A Pint of Science

The vicar of Little Stukeley

It might have been Great Stukeley, actually. 

Many years ago now, I was asked to appear on BBC Cambridgeshire doing a segment about burial practice. They took me to whichever Great Stukeley and had me stand in front of these Roman-era burial mounds they have there and talk about how people were buried. It was kind of odd because I was there, standing next to them … but we were on the radio. I’m sure it made sense to the producer in some way, but it didn’t make any to me. 

After the recording, we went out to lunch, and with us was the vicar of Great Stukeley (or possibly Little Stukeley), who was a nice guy, probably around my age. I don’t really remember anything about him except that he had very good hair and cool glasses, and I think I mentally filed him under “cool vicar.” And like all cool priests, he was really interested in the topic, so we talked about it. 

And he was critical — I mean, sympathetically, understandingly critical — of what he saw as a bad tendency toward individuality and self-expression in funerals. He talked about the music that people chose to play; the most popular choices, he told me, were [some sentimental pop song of the time] and “My Way.” And he looked a little concerned, and he said: “but it’s not about doing it your way, is it? It’s about doing it Christ’s way.”

Now, I’m sympathetic to his plight. Here he is, the local representative of the National Religion of Non-Dogmatic Theism, and he wants to talk about something a little more like Christianity, while most of his parishioners see him as a kind of civil functionary whose job is to perform some kind of emotionally fulfilling closure ceremony. It’s a tough world for a keen young cleric. But from my I-love-funerals position, what I love is that some of his parishioners would include grave goods

He told me that he’d heard this kind of rolling, clanking sound as one of his parishioners was taken away in the coffin. When he asked the mourners, they informed him, confidentially, like, that the deceased had been provided with some of his beloved Guinness to see him through the afterlife. What was the poor vicar going to do? I assume that when you do a theology degree and get sent to Little (or Great) Stukeley, the last thing you expect to encounter among your congregation is heathenism

It made me think, as many things did in those days, of the pioneering research of Mike Parker Pearson. To grossly over-simplify, in the Olden Dayes people believed that what you found in a grave signified what people thought the afterlife was going to be like — probably because this is what the ancient Egyptians loudly insisted? I dunno. In the 20th century, archaeologists, particularly in America, began to get into the idea that it was something more than that. It was about displaying your wealth and social status in a big old event so people would know what a big deal you were. They constructed elaborate systems for determining a society’s complexity by the number of different levels of social hierarchy implied by the goods in graves and all that. 

Now, if you stop and think about this for ten minutes, you’ll see that it’s horseshit on its face, but I think they didn’t really know what else they could do with this data. So along comes Parker Pearson and he delivers, in a single article, an axe kick to this whole theory. He studies burials in modern Cambridge and identifies that — surprise, surprise — not only is there no correlation between social status and how elaborate your burials were, but in fact there’s some inverse correlation, with marginal groups like Travellers and carnies having these very big and splendid funeral monuments. 

And there are like ten different points implicated here that I don’t have time to go into, but I’m going to talk about two because one lets me use some photographs and the other relates back to the vicar. 

OK. Photo one first. Here is an image of Winston Churchill’s funeral: 


Now here is a photo of Winston Churchill’s grave: 



(Sir Winston Churchill’s Grave, Bladon, by Neil Hanson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0)

Enh? Enh? 

The other thought was that this was a great example of the ways in which ideology in burials was all weird and contested and mixed up by the different people who participated in it, people who were all part of what from our high level archaeologists would call the same culture. 

Eh, blah blah death, blah blah funerals, blah blah beer cans. The point of the story is the poor vicar with his agenda running smack bang into the murky world of using pop culture and consumer bullshit to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have. 


The vicar of Little Stukeley

Ambrose Bierce and the oddness of “disappearing”

So Luke asked about Ambrose Bierce. 


Ambrose Bierce is one of those figures in American letters. He’s beloved of everyone who enjoys the fine art of being outrageously rude about people, and to top it off he wrote some weird and jagged fiction. 

But what Bierce might be most famous for is dying — or, more accurately, not dying where anyone could see him. Bierce — 71 at the time — was in Mexico accompanying Pancho Villa’s army when he vanished. His last letter was written the day after Christmas, 1913. 

What has always interested me about the Bierce disappearance is that it’s the most famous example of its kind in American literature — and in American history, it’s probably only surpassed by Amelia Earhart. But in neither Bierce nor Earhart’s case is there any real mystery at all about what happened. A 71-year-old Gringo in the middle of a particularly unpleasant shooting war? It would be a surprise if there weren’t some kind of an incident. And Bierce agreed: 

Good-by — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!

So Bierce was not completely uninterested in the idea of doing himself in. But because we don’t know the exact place, date and time of his death, we regard him as some kind of mystery man. We get very fixated about these things. 

Perhaps it’s because my background is as a medievalist, but I have never quite understood this thing. We’re very interested in how people die, as if we don’t know a person until we understand the time and the manner of their death. For a medievalist, it’s not so weird to have someone who isn’t a king or something just disappear from the written record. 

Doubly so for an archaeologist, who has a tendency to see a lot of people who don’t appear in the written record. In all my research, I only really encountered one person whose death I could date — that is, one person I could identify, Ranulf Flambard. 

And the thing is, I think Ranulf Flambard is amazing. He is easily my favourite 11th-12th century cleric, and I’m including both Adhemar of Le Puy and Odo of Bayeux in that. And Anselm of Canterbury. So think about that

And is it partly because I somehow feel like the grave makes him special? Yeah, kind of. 

Also, it is the last day to enter the banner competition! Although, honestly, if you send me something over the weekend, that’s also cool. 

Ambrose Bierce and the oddness of “disappearing”