Thursday, August 21, 2014

Archaeology of Gatherings Conference | Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland | October 2013 | Part III

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Session 3 of the Archaeology of Gatherings Conference, Sligo, October 2013

< Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V | Part VI >

Suitably refreshed, entertained and educated by Simon O’Dwyer, [Website | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | SoundCloud | YouTube] we reassembled for the first afternoon session, again chaired by Sam Moore. This portion of the conference began with Prof. Clark McPhail (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). Prof. McPhail was also the Keynote Speaker (Sociology) for the conference. His chosen topic was The Life Course of Temporary Gatherings. His first observation was that archaeologists appear to prefer the term ‘gathering’, as opposed to the word ‘crowd’, which is preferred by sociologists. He then took us through a collection of his photographs from the period from 1965 to 1968, chronicling the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War, and Labor Movements in the US. He described how his early work was about taking photographs and making notes. He was recording these crowds, but there was no defined methodology. At that time there were various theories on crowds and collective behaviour. However, none of the theories specified any behaviour, nor were there criteria in place to judge the behaviours of the collective.

'Going to the Match' by L. S. Lowry (Source)
Prof. McPhail argued that the concept of the crowd implied homogeneity of motives, goals, and attitude. He proposed that a better definition of a ‘gathering’ is needed. His answer was: Two or more persons, occupying a common location in space and time. Going beyond this, there are various forms of gathering, including Continuous (e.g. prisons, military bases, encampments); Temporary (e.g. political rallies, parties, workspaces); Impromptu (e.g. fires, arrests, fights); Ad hoc (e.g. funerals, demonstrations); Periodic (Hajj, sporting events). What all of these have in common is that they require an action of assembly to form the gathering, followed by an eventual dispersal process.  Using L. S. Lowry’s painting 'Going to the Match' as a visual aid, McPhail noted that while one can spot some individuals within the crowd, most are in small groups. His research has confirmed this pattern – that people assemble, engage, and disperse form these large gatherings as small groups. The dispersal process may be in one of a number of forms: Routine (the process is self-initiated; gradual; uneventful); Coerced (the process is other-directed; physical; there may be injuries sustained from, for example, pepper spray or hoses/water cannon); or Emergency (this form suggests altruistic behaviour).

All gatherings are comprised of an alternating and varied combination of individual and collective actions. McPhail’s research shows that these may be broken down into a number of components: Facing (convergent facing – e.g. towards a stage or speaker); Voicing (e.g. chanting or singing); Manipulating (e.g. hands in air/clapping/gesturing (pointing, single-finger salute etc.)); Posturing and Locomotion (e.g. sitting/embracing/SleepingDragons/prostrating (islamic prayers etc.), walking, or marching). Researchers use field notes, photography, and video to identify and record how two or more individuals can interact in a crowd. Prof. McPhail’s work shows that there are some 40 elementary forms of collective action (EFCA), in terms of stances and/or interactions.

Prof. McPhail and his associates have applied their process to over 150 gatherings, including the March for Life; the National Organization for Women; and the Promise KeepersStand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1997. In the latter case, operatives recorded 55 ‘observation minutes’ between 10am and 7pm, which included two hours before and after the event. Recording at this level of granularity allows ‘quantitate estimates of the proportions of persons in a gathering participating in one or more EFCA over time and hence a window into the dynamics of collective actions within gatherings’. McPhail argues that, although there are a number of caveats, the idea of unanimity is an illusion within group dynamics – everyone is not always doing the same thing and there is no mutually inclusive form of participation. He ended with a call for further research to produce a more general theory of purposeful action.

Stonehenge Free Festival (Source)
If this conference had awarded prizes – and it should have! – for most co-authors of a single paper Tonight we’re going party like it’s 1985! The Archaeology of Festivals in Geophysical Data would have won hands down [edit: actually we’d have had to share the prize, but there should still have been a prize!]. Dr. James Bonsall (University of Bradford, Earthsound Archaeological Geophysics) took the floor representing himself and the following: Dr. Chris Gaffney (University of Bradford); Prof. Vince Gaffney (University of Birmingham); Heather Gimson (University of Bradford, Earthsound Archaeological Geophysics), and some bloke called Robert M. Chapple (William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive, Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates). Bonsall began by outlining the two 1985 festivals that involved the gathering of large numbers of people that made up the paper – In the vicinity of Stonehenge there was gathering of Hippies, while in Portumna, Co. Galway, there was a Scout Jamboree. From a geophysical point of view, both forms of gathering created settlement activities that produced areas of burning, ferrous debris, and dug features such as latrine pits. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project (SHLP) has carried out fluxgate gradiometery over 8km2 surrounding the central monument along with high resolution magnetometry (caesium vapour) over a smaller area. The Stonehenge landscape had long been known to have been the focus of gatherings during the Neolithic and later periods. The data collected by the SHLP during 2010-2012 has allowed the identification of several previously unrecorded prehistoric monuments, including new barrows and hengiform enclosures, which emphasise the importance of the landscape surrounding Stonehenge. A large area of dispersed ferrous debris was recorded during this work and has been identified as the remains of the Stonehenge Free Festival.  The festival was held at this location from 1972 to 1984, and was attended by up to 65,000 people. The final (attempted) festival resulted in a confrontation with the Police on June 1st 1985, known as ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’. Documentary evidence indicates that there were a number of discrete areas dedicated to the stage, campsite, latrines, and basic supplies. Potentially confusing factors include tales of a tax being levied by the organisers to fund a post-festival clean-up, though it is uncertain how effective either the clean-up or the attempt to levy it actually was. Surviving maps of the festival layout were overlain onto the geophysical data – itself arranged by 1 hectare blocks. The geophysical data clearly shows that the campsite was differentiated by a high volume of ferrous signals, and the position of the latrines may also have been identified – at a slight remove from the rest of the activities.

Portumna '85 ... before the flood (© W. Fahy Collection)
The geophysical investigation at Portumna, on the northern shores of Lough Derg, Co. Galway, was commissioned by the Office of Public Works. The site includes a 13th century Cistercian Abbey, a Medieval castle, a post-Medieval icehouse, and assorted late buildings. The geophysical methods used here included magnetometer surveys, along with ground penetrating radar, and earth resistance. The Portumna data also returned a similar pattern of material remains, suggested by increased background noise in the data. This is interpreted as evidence of the August 1985 Scout Jamboree that attracted 10,000 scouts and their leaders from around the world. This was my personal contribution to the paper, having been one of the Scouts attending the event – I was a member of Kestrel Patrol in the 4th Galway, Craughwell, Troop – and could contribute personal reminiscences of the event. For the first time in my life, I have been less the archaeologist, and more the archaeology! The surveyed area covered the Grainne Staff Camp and part of the open area in front of the stage. One difference between the two datasets was the lack of burning evidence at Portumna, which may be explained by the camp requirement of having a raised-hearth, so no dug fire-pits were excavated. Again, the communal area around the stage was kept clear, which was reflected in the geophysical data. Bonsall’s point in all this is that we have here two relatively well documented gatherings that have left no surface trace, but yet may be recovered through geophysical survey. Consequently, there are implications that other gatherings, much further back in time, could be identified through careful analysis of the data from future surveys. With regard to these festival sites in particular, Bonsall asked if they could be considered archaeological sites in their own right? As the current Irish legislation is framed to only include post-1700 AD sites, this is not an option. However, the UK ’50 year rule’ will mean that the site of the first Stonehenge Free Festival in 1972 will officially become ‘archaeology’ in 2022. Some commentators have suggested that the ferrous signals should be investigated, with a view to ‘decontaminating’ the Stonehenge area. Bonsall argued that this would lead to large-scale test-pitting across the landscape that would be needlessly destructive to the ancient sites. He also pointed out that the presence of the festival can be interpreted from the aggregation of the ferrous responses, but that not all are certainly of modern origin. My own feeling in this is that these festivals are part of the story of these sites and that archaeological record should be left in place.

Brian Boru, King of Munster (Source)
The final speaker in this session was the Dr Edel Bhreathnach (Discovery Programme) speaking on Medieval Gatherings. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there were large parts of this presentation that I just didn’t get. This is no fault of Bhreathnach, who is an excellent and engaging speaker, but more to do with my lack of familiarity with much of the source material and my parallel need for caffeination – by this time in the afternoon the lecture hall felt too warm and airless, and I struggled to maintain any form of concentration and coherent note taking. For these reasons, I present merely a couple of ‘snippets’, rather than a more complete account of her paper. Bhreathnach began by noting that there are a small central core of sites that are regularly referred to in the early sources as places of gathering, including Rathcroghan and Telltown. However, there must have been a whole host of local and regional gatherings. Certainly, there a large number of Irish terms for various forms of gathering. These include Óenach (a fair); dál and comdál (organised, royal events); tinól (ecclesiastical); cuairt (Lordly or legal); and airecht (a local assembly). Bhreathnach examined the purpose, period, context, attendees, and the type of sites employed for these gatherings. The Annals of Ulster record that in the year 1007 the Óenach of Telltown was revived by Maeloachlin, a rival of Brian Boru, who also wanted to be king. This was expressly part of his bid to be seen as suitably kingly – essentially creating/recreating a place to hold a gathering was a necessary point of kingship. In every sense this was a ‘staged’ event with the burial sites and standing stones associated with the site being regarded by Bhreathnach as ‘props’ for this large-scale production. There is also evidence that earlier monuments were reconstructed and sculpted as part of these revivals. For example she points to evidence from John Waddell’s work at Rathcroghan and the Conor Newman’s excavations at The Knockans, part of the Telltown complex. Bhreathnach noted that there was an intriguing recurring theme in the literature of these sites being associated with the death of a female figure. Such recurring instances can be easily dismissed as literary motifs, but she noted that as part of her work on the Mapping Death project there did appear to be a correlation with the use of female burials as the central or ‘foundation’ burials in cemetery groups or as burials on territorial boundaries. In the period from 1118 to 1156 Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair, King of Connaught, held a number of gatherings. Some were held at ancient sites, but some were not. An analysis of their form indicates that a wide range of places were considered as suitable, and were used, for assemblies. Bhreathnach argues that we must be careful in attempting to find a ‘one size fits all’ definition of what constitutes a suitable assembly site. Instead, we should be cognisant of the fact that differences in statuses of the various participants, along with the reasons the assemblies were held, had a direct bearing on the places chosen for gathering.

With the conclusion of a brief question and answer session with the speakers, we all ambled out into the light for fresh air and coffee.

< Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V | Part VI >