Tuesday, 22 September 2015


     We’re all familiar with mansplaining, right? Where a woman talks about something she has had direct personal experience of, only to be interrupted with an unasked for contribution from some bloke, telling her that she’s wrong and it’s not really like that at all, and he is here to explain it all for her. I’ve had it happen to me many times. What I’ve also had happen quite a few times this year is archsplaining.

     I’m not an archaeologist; I have no pretensions towards being one, nor a historian, nor a heritage professional. I’m me, just me, a twatty blogger with a history of mental health problems who has happened to fall under the spell of graffiti (medieval graffiti in particular), and am evangelical/loud/quite annoying and difficult to shut up about it. I don’t lay claim to being an expert on any aspect of archaeology, mental health, or graffiti.

     That’s the disclaimer. What I am, however, is a member of the public who is passionate about history and heritage, about people and their lives, and why it’s important that we study and learn from them. Why it matters that we engage people with what is their history, in whatever form that takes, whichever period of history or aspect of it that appeals to them. I’m very fortunate to live in Norwich, a city that’s filled to the brim with past lives and buildings that reflect that. Perhaps if I lived in Milton Keynes I’d feel differently. Who knows?

     I could bang on for a fair bit about the importance of history and people and so on, but I do that quite a lot, so I’ll just get to my point instead. And from now on, when I type ‘archaeologists’, please take it as a given that I mean ‘some archaeologists/historians/heritage professionals’. I’ve come across quite a few in recent years, and many of them have been utterly lovely, encouraging, helpful and supportive. If you’re on twitter, I suggest you follow Natalie Cohen, Helen J, medieval graffiti, Waveney archaeology, Ian Groves and Andrew Macdonald at the very least. They will bring you happiness, insight, and quite a few giggles too (and apologies to Other Lovely Archaeologists I know I’ve forgotten, add yourself in the comments).

     So. Archsplaining. It takes two forms. The first is quite straightforward. A twatty blogger writes a post about an aspect of archaeology she finds interesting, or her personal experience, solely from her perspective, with no pretensions towards academic glory or even really historical accuracy, because she is but a civilian. Many people enjoy the post, and say so. And then… the archaeologists descend. And don’t talk to her directly, but perhaps say ‘oh dear. She really doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. Let’s sneer at her from a not really very discreet distance at all, or perhaps comment about her mental health.'

     The second type of archsplaining is the one that annoys me most. It is the seemingly limitless ability to find gloom and doom and negativity in even the most beautiful unicorn farting rainbow glitter over a waterfall (sample archaeologist reaction: who’s going to clear that mess up? And I bet it pollutes the water. This is an ancient monument, I don’t think it’s right to add a unicorn to it. It’s all become too commercialised these days. Look at all the people enjoying this sight, they have precisely NO knowledge of unicorns! This really should be closed off before we have too many members of the general public seeing it and not understanding it’s significance, I’m not going to waste my time trying to explain it to anyone who doesn’t have my level of knowledge, and anyway I don’t get paid enough and archaeologists are special and precious and we must not allow anyone in to our exclusive club and and and)

     I don’t mind being sneered at so much (I mean, I do mind, it really fucking pisses me off to be honest, but hey ho, life isn’t a popularity contest and we all end up dead), what infuriates me is the fact that I am giving archaeologists a sodding gold plated opportunity to engage with people like me. If I’m wrong about something, then talk to me about it, don’t talk about me instead. It’s the insular nature of archaeology that winds me up to the point that I could power the bloody Aswan dam. Take last week’s post about me gaining confidence via a community archaeology project. At no point in that did I say ARCHAEOLOGY FOR EVERYONE WITH MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS SHOULD BE MANDATORY. No, I was just relating my experience, in what I think was a fairly honest way, and I was pretty overwhelmed at the response I got, from people like me, people not like me, and the Lovely Archaeologists I’ve mentioned above.

     And you’re already reading ‘BUT’, before I’ve even typed it… god ALMIGHTY the reaction on one facebook page. It wasn’t all negative, not at all, so don’t get huffy. But the gloomy, woe-filled, ‘yeah, but what about US as archaeologists, who cares about our mental health, and I don’t think archaeology should be used as therapy, and loads of projects will exploit mental health patients, and we’re not responsible for people who are ill, and and and’ comments that followed... I mean, seriously, guys? Seriously? From one twatty blogger’s celebratory and joyful post about how one community archaeology project made one of her days wonderful and has given her confidence, hope, and a new passion… and instead it becomes an issue about how archaeologists are so unfairly treated man, it’s just not even funny (there was also a glib remark about ‘being barking mad’ that I may have seriously got The Arse with).

     Jesus wept. I appreciate that there are very real dangers facing archaeology, both as a profession and in terms of physical heritage. But the instinctive behaviour of so many professionals seems to be to huddle inwards into a circle, backs against the world, moaning and sighing that no one outside the circle understands. Well, maybe, and this is just the suggestion of someone who isn’t an archaeologist… perhaps if no one understands, the fault lies not with us, the public, the volunteers, the twatty blogger, but with the way in which you choose to communicate? That’s my little bit of archsplainery advice.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Going public

     I was going to write this post anyway, but yesterday, serendipitously, a new twitter account appeared in my life - http://changeminds.org.uk/    It looks like an absolutely fascinating project, using history and archives to help support people with mental health problems who also face other challenges. Please do visit their website to find out more, and follow what looks to be a very interesting project.

     I know what you think, but trust me, I’m not really like that. I know I come across online as sweary, ranty, outspoken, fierce, and PRONE TO CAPS LOCK. I’m really, really not, not in real life. In real life, I’m desperately shy, quiet, and timid. Meeting new people is utterly terrifying, and to be avoided at all costs, and when I do see people, I tend to be utterly lovely. Or, as one person put it ‘You’re an awful lot nicer in person.’

     It used to confuse people, when I was younger and did a lot of theatre work, that I could be so utterly insignificant and yet never experience a pang of stage fright ahead of a performance. To me, it’s obvious. When I was acting, I wasn’t being myself, wasn’t using my words, wasn’t even falling back on my usual mannerisms, I was playing at being someone else. To stand up and perform someone else’s words? Easy. But standing up in front of two or more people and delivering my own words and thoughts? Not a chance in hell.

     Public speaking does tend to be one of those things that divide people. For some, it’s straightforward, easy, doesn’t ever give them pause for thought. For most though, it’s the kind of thing that makes one want to climb inside a filing cabinet and never, ever come out, not even for oxygen. I’m very much a filing cabinet dweller, and have become even more so over the last few years. I’m not even very good at being sociable in the school playground. Partly I suppose it’s because your character tends to become more fixed as you get older, but also because of the ups and downs of the last ten years. Never confident in any case, I definitely have a tendency to retreat, and hide, silently, not making eye contact, until people have left and the danger of speaking has passed.

     Which is why Saturday was a leetle bit surprising, for any unfortunates who have encountered me in my fully 3D form. I wasn’t just out in public, talking to people. I was giving guided tours of the medieval graffiti at Norwich Cathedral to groups of complete strangers, as part of Heritage Open Days.

     Yes, that’s me, on the right (and yes, I know, my ‘look’ in as much as I have one is best described as windswept and interesting). Me. Standing, torch and laminated A4 photos in hand, gabbling on enthusiastically about medieval graffiti and history and meaning and people and answering questions and attempting to make people laugh (some did!) to groups of people whose ages ranged from three to mid-seventies. And not only was I doing it, but I [drumroll and triumphant fanfare] volunteered to do it. I’d had a day shadowing a fellow guide on Friday, chipping in now and again. But on Saturday, it was me. Just me (with a glamorous assistant on hand to stop me from accidentally dropping all the laminates and having them slither across the floor in every direction).

     I suppose the main question is why/how/what/who/you’re not as brown as I thought you’d be/did no one tell you that you look like you got dressed in the dark? It’s quite straightforward, honest (for me, precious little is straightforward, so cherish this).

     You know I love graffiti, all of it, most especially medieval graffiti. It’s been nearly two years since I was reminded of thatlittle ship up at Salthouse, and   since then… it’s changed my life. It’s become a passion, an addiction, a companion, a quiet little process ticking away in my mind for so much of the time. I feel very connected to it, and to the people who created it. More than that though, I’ve got to know some of the people who are part of the medieval graffiti survey, I’ve started to feel a part of the group, some of those involved have become friends, good friends. And the little contribution that I’ve made has been appreciated. I can’t tell you how much confidence that’s given me, to feel as though I had something to offer to a project I care so much about. In a rare example of a virtuous circle, giving me that confidence has inspired me to want to do more, to share the simple wonder and beauty that I’ve seen on the walls.

     And how do I do more? How do I spread the word, and get more people to want to explore it too? I can blog about it, that’s easy. I can retweet things, and share posts on facebook. But the best way, really, is to lead off a group of ten people and grin goofily at them as I point out ships, and daisywheels, and curses, and faces, and all those faint little etchings on the walls.

     I won’t lie, I was absolutely petrified. My first stop on the tour was this medieval music. Easy enough to point out. Except that it isn’t when your hands are shaking, your throat is dry, you drop your laminates, and when you finally manage to speak your voice has been replaced by that of a boy on the cusp of puberty, and all intelligent thought has vanished. But I did it, and as time went on, I actually started to enjoy it. I felt confident in what I was saying and doing. I doubt I was very good, despite the generosity and goodwill of my audience, but I still did it, I got through it, and best of all, as dear sweet Project Director Matt Champion said to my first group ‘Well done! You…. SURVIVED!’ (Yeah, going to be having words with him about that).    

     I’m still on a bit of a high from it, to be frank. To actually get people involved in something different, something new, have them make connections between then and now, to have the opportunity to share something with people. I know that to a lot of people, it barely merits a shrug or even a second thought. But considering my history of mental health problems, my natural introverted personality, and utter terror of speaking to more than one new person at a time, I’m proud of myself. Not something I allow myself to feel very often, or even to say to anyone. But I am. And I’m even prouder to be a part of a project that’s done so much for so many people. So often, when you have mental health issues, you can feel very isolated. Medieval graffiti has made me feel part of something.