Knight at the Crossroads

The new header image on my site, in case you’re wondering, is part of a photo (of an oil painting) I took in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg in 2013. The painting is Knight at the Crossroads by Victor Vasnetsov, completed in 1878. Here is the full painting, pulled from Wikimedia:

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Crossroads are a big thing in many folk tales, including Russian folk tales, but in Russia, crossroads are frequently used as a metaphor for the pull between East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernization. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Vasnetsov’s imagery would’ve been even more striking than it is for me to look at, today, as a non-Russian – and it is striking, even out of its context.

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The Pintia Field School

This June, I spent three weeks at an archaeological field school in northern Spain, working on an Iron Age necropolis called Las Ruedas. The necropolis served as a burial place for the Vaccean city of Pintia, which housed about 5,000 residents over 170 acres, and was occupied from around 400 BCE to roughly 600 CE. The necropolis contains burials from the Vaccean, Roman, and Visigothic phases of the area’s history. The Vacceans who first built the city of Pintia were a highly advanced Celt-Iberian civilization, with skilled artisans and excellent defensive structures–though the Romans did eventually conquer the city and settle in the area. The site straddles a stream, with the residential area and necropolis on one side, and the crematorium and artisans’ quarters (metal works and pottery workshops) on the other, which would have reduced the risk of fire in the residential part of the city.

The interpretive material the Pintia staff has put together for Las Ruedas Necropolis emphasizes the link between modern-day residents of the region and their own ancestry (the Vaccean people who lived here before them, whose descendants they are). Site director Dr. Carlos Sanz is especially focused on making the graves of the necropolis more personal. Each of the excavated tombs is marked with rough chronological dates, age at death and sex of the deceased (when either can be estimated), and requiem poetry (70 poems are by Aderito Pérez Calvo, a late friend of Dr. Sanz, and the rest are Celtic or Latin requiem poems). The stela (standing stones) which mark the graves have been re-placed in their original position, and a cypress tree is also planted near each excavated grave. There are larger, modern monuments with Celt-Iberian symbols, including one dedicated to the warriors who were not cremated (like the majority of Vacceans), but exposed to the vultures after death. Another is a Roman-style monument of tile, engraved and decorated in Vaccean patterns, which Dr. Sanz made himself. It has spaces where cylindrical tubes containing catalogued remains can be inserted once excavation and analysis is complete. This makes it possible to return the remains to the necropolis, while also maintaining provenience for other researchers who may analyze the remains in the future. An empty area in Las Ruedas is now used for dedications to people who have supported and helped with the project who have since died. The monuments and dedications bring to the forefront that the past and the present of the area are linked in important ways, that heritage has meaning, and that long-dead ancestors were real people with real lives. I found the care and attention to detail in the interpretive material both touching and impressive. It highlights how important the presentation of information can be in stressing the significance of a site and giving visitors a sense of connection to the people of the past.

Within walking distance of the necropolis is the tiny village of Padilla de Duero (population around 70), where the University of Valladolid’s Federico Wattenberg Center for Vaccean Studies is located. The Center, founded by Dr. Sanz, houses a small museum (which doubles as a living/dining area for students), a dormitory and kitchen, a laboratory, and a curation facility. Eva Laguna is in charge of putting together the publications for the Center, and she and Dr. Sanz cook all of the delicious Spanish meals for the students, as well. We were a small group–only five students–so we each got a lot of guidance during work hours from Dr. Sanz and Rita Pedro, the international coordinator, translator, and co-director of excavations.

On our days off, we went on excursions to see, for example, the castle at Piñafiel, the Vaccean exhibit in Palencia, and the University of Vallodalid’s rare and antique book library, as well as part of the university’s anatomical collections. We went canoeing one afternoon through a gorgeous canyon with cliffs full of birds’ nests. On our last full day, we visited an excavated Roman villa, as well as Altamira and Monte del Castillo, two caves containing 18,000-year-old paintings.

Work days were split in half: by 7:45 a.m. we were on site working, then headed back to the Center (or, more often, Angelina’s, the cafe down the street from the Center) around 1 pm. At 2:30, we had lunch, followed by siesta time (or free time, if you could stay awake), and at 5 we headed back to work. Dinner started around 9:30 p.m., but since we genuinely all liked each other, we usually stayed up late socializing, swapping music, and watching movies together instead of going to bed early.

Even with only three weeks of fieldwork, we put in 150 excavation hours, plus seminars on Vaccean culture, osteology, artifact processing and repair, archaeological drawing, and stratigraphy. While stratigraphy may not sound like the most exciting thing about fieldwork, it’s one of the most important things for an aspiring archaeologist to learn, and it’s not something I could have learned from a textbook or in a classroom. Even though I understood that stratigraphy provides the context for the materials and shows the layout of the site’s features (pits, structures, etc.), when I first started digging I had no idea what to look for in terms of changes in soil composition. After spending a few days in the field with instruction, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been able to see feature outlines or composition changes from the start. It isn’t that stratigraphy is particularly difficult, but you do have to physically work on a site in order to get the hang of it.

We excavated two units, each of us spending some time digging and some time screening for artifacts. Most of what we found were pottery sherds and faunal remains (burial of portions of the funerary feast was common), but we also found small pieces of cremated human remains, metal objects (brooches, pieces of weapons or belts, etc.), and canicas (decorated ceramic marbles, also traditionally buried in Vaccean graves). Just when it looked like we might not uncover an actual tomb during our excavation, we came to a collection of intact vessels–including a funerary urn. After cleaning all around the area to make sure we didn’t miss any associated artifacts, we took elevation measurements and drew the tomb into the site map, photographed everything in context, and took the pottery back to the Center for processing. The interior of each vessel was scraped with a scalpel in order to take a small sample to be tested. These samples are analyzed to determine the contents of the vessels–whether they contained wine, olive oil, or ash from human remains, for example.

Our success with the tomb coincided with Padilla de Duero’s feast of San Antonio, and we were invited to join the festivities along with the whole town. With cause to celebrate over our fieldwork and only a few days before the end of the program, it was the perfect time for a big feast in great company, followed by late-night dancing and singing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better field school experience, and I’m grateful to all the people who shared that experience with me–my hard-working fellow students and the always-informative Pintia staff, the staff of ArchaeoSpain and the University of Valladolid, and the kind and hospitable people of Padilla de Duero–as well as the people who made it possible for me to go: the University of Louisville Department of Anthropology and the Etscorn International Summer Research Awards Committee.

10 Things I’ve Learned Overseas

I’ve written an actual summary about the academic side of my field school experience in Spain, but I’m waiting for a couple fact-checks before I send it to websites to be posted.  In the meantime, here is a silly/philosophical (sillosophical?) list of things I’ve learned while studying abroad in Russia and Spain over the last two summers:

1. How to nap in a wheelbarrow.  I’m serious.  It’s very comfortable, and I don’t even normally take naps.

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2. Don’t fear the metro.  It’s the trusty steed of the modern city, no matter what country you’re in.

3. How not to spill water on myself while drinking out of a botijo (see photo) unless it’s really hot and I want to spill water on myself.

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4. Russia is not cold in June/July.  Spain is cold in the morning and the evening in June.  Even weather defies stereotypes.

5. How to talk to people without knowing the right words.  Most of the time, knowing the most important words and doing your best with the rest of the sentence will get you through, especially if you gesture a lot (which I do).  I even managed to be funny a few times (usually on purpose in Spanish, not so intentionally in Russian)!

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6. On that note – just so you know – “tired” and “old” are not the same word in Russian, and “caliente” when applied to a person in Spanish does not mean “experiencing a high temperature.”

7. Singing and dancing are not about how good you are at them, they’re about how much fun you’re having.  If you’re around people who disagree with that philosophy, you’re probably in America – and you should find more fun Americans.

8. Working hard does not mean making your entire existence revolve around your job.

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9. You can, in fact, forget how to ride a bike.

10. There’s no point worrying about 90% of things that happen – either you’re wasting energy worrying when you could be working on the solution, or you’re wasting energy worrying when you can’t do a damn thing about it.

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¡España!

IMG_2716There is so much to say about my trip to Spain, I don’t know where to begin.  Do I post about the food, the friendships, the excursions, the many things I learned, the process of trying to remember a language I haven’t spoken in about 12 years, the seminars, or the excavation?  Well, the excavation and the seminars, I know I can save for a guest post for Pintia!  But that still leaves a lot of ground to cover.  So here’s a list, to start with:

Favorite foods: Spanish tortilla, chorizo, manchego cheese

Favorite drinks: Peach nectar (not alcoholic), every single local Spanish wine, Portuguese cinnamon whatever-that-was (definitely alcoholic)*, Portuguese port wine*  (*note to self: must visit Portugal on a non-working vacation!)

Favorite city experience: University of Valladolid – anatomical museum with amazing human and animal skeletal comparative collections, and also an incredible rare and antique books library

Most unforgettable experience: 18,000-year-old cave paintings…in person…and feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I saw 60-odd overlapping human hands from SO LONG AGO painted on a cave wall less than 2 feet away from me

IMG_2914Fell in love with: Northern Spanish countryside.  Absolutely stunning landscape with plains, hills, mountains, rivers, canyons, and breathtaking views; gorgeous skies; beautiful and ABUNDANT wildflowers and wild herbs….  Couldn’t get enough of it!

Best bonding experiences: 5 students making dinner together for our 3 program directors, sharing music and movie clips during mealtimes, and the evening we all went to our site director’s house for after-feast drinks and sat around playing the drums on encyclopedias while singing Spanish verses we didn’t understand

Funniest (yet most annoying) experience: The night of the World Cup opening, we were awakened at 1:30 am by Gangnam Style being blasted so loud it felt like a dance club was in the dorm room with us.  Haha!

I was honestly pretty nervous, before I left, about spending 24/7 for 3 weeks with a group of people I didn’t know.  If I’d had any idea how fun, hard-working, silly, amazing, and genuinely kind my fellow students and our caretakers program directors would turn out to be, I wouldn’t have been nervous at all!  I know it was only 3 weeks, but I felt like part of a damn cool family by the end of the program.  Thank you to all y’all who were/are a part of that experience with me!

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Goin’ Away To Spain

For some reason, everyone assumes I’m going on a *vacation* to Spain.  These people think I have way more money than I do.  Haha!  I’m actually going to Spain for an archaeological field school, which is both more exciting and a lot more work than a vacation.  For anyone who doesn’t know what happens at an archaeological field school, it goes like this:  I pay the field school tuition to let me work for them.  While working on the excavation, I learn the correct techniques for each step of the process, partly by training and partly by doing the work.  I also go to seminars and workshops to learn skills like excavation photography and archaeological drawing, osteology (skeletal analysis) and burial practices, etc.  From what I’ve heard from friends who have already done a field school, I’ll also spend a lot of time hauling buckets of dirt, digging in the dirt, sweating, cursing, laughing, cracking jokes, sight-seeing on the days off, and stuffing myself with good local food and beer.  See – better than a vacation, but also more work!

Oh, and if anyone is thinking this is a good time to find my apartment and steal all my stuff, note that Zak (an armed and formidably muscular man) is, alas, not able to come with me.  So I don’t recommend it.

Anyone who doesn’t get the title of this post, do yourself a favor and check out the Jane’s Addiction song, “Jane Says”.

Ask Me Anything….

I have plenty of topics I *could* blog about.  I’m trying to expand the scope of things I write about here, and I’m curious as to what those of you who read this blog want more of!  So if there is anything you’d like to know more about (my writing, my recent trip to Russia, archaeology and/or my academic pursuits, my chinchilla, or whatever), ask me a question in the comments section of any of my posts, and I will write a post to answer.

In the meantime, here is a post about how awesome the food is in Russia.

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pork & potatoes stewed with onions, dill, and bell peppers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Petersburg has so many good restaurants – and even the pub grub is fantastic – I can’t even scratch the surface of all there is to try.  There are more sushi bars than you can shake a stick at, too – and apparently it’s a big thing to have pizza and sushi in the same meal…which I didn’t try, although it sounds like a great idea to me!

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pelmini – meat dumplings with sour cream

My favorite Russian dishes were probably the pork & potato stew (which was called different names on different menus – if you know the “official” name of this dish, let me know!), pelmini, and beef Stroganoff (which Americans always serve with noodles, but Russians serve with either mashed potatoes or fries).  Speaking of the fries, they MUST be fried in lard or duck fat or something over there, because they’re too good not to be horrendously bad for you.  I could happily die 20 years earlier than my natural lifespan if I could eat fries that good on a daily basis!  Who needs unclogged arteries???!

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beef Stroganoff & the best fries on the planet

On the other hand, I felt like I was eating much healthier while I was abroad, because the meals are more balanced.  You don’t get a whopping huge portion of meat and starch at a Russian restaurant.  You get a pretty reasonable portion for one human to eat, and you get about an equal portion of veggies, soup, or a roll (stuffed with veggies or fruit jam). Since I absolutely love fruit and fruit juices, the fact that there was an incredible selection of fruit juices on every menu and at the grocery didn’t hurt, either…pure strawberry or cherry juice with any given meal is my idea of heaven.  There’s also mors, which is berry juice, and kompot, which is juice with fruit and cucumber slices in the bottom of the glass.  And then there’s kvass, which is a drink made from bread (somehow), and which tastes like bread, tea, and beer had a lovechild together and then took the alcohol out (mostly).  It’s a weird flavor, but oddly crave-able.

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blini stuffed with mushroom cream sauce & chicken, borscht, and a bottle of kvass

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the end of a double chocolate stout and a Delirium Red

And as long as we’ve mentioned alcohol…the first thing most Americans think of when they think of Russia is, of course, vodka.  And yes, the low-end vodka in Russia is about 100 times better than the medium-end vodka in America.  My hostess explained to me that the tradition in Russia is to toast, take a drink, then eat a little something – a bite-size cube of cheese or a fresh strawberry – to make it easier on the stomach.  Even as strong as the vodka was, though, it was pretty damn smooth.  In the past year, I’ve finally acquired a taste for beer, and St. Petersburg restaurants and pubs have some pretty extensive selection of world beers!  Mostly, I’m a stout fan.  I like beer so dark that it develops an event horizon around the glass.  Found some good stouts in Russia, including a double chocolate stout, and THEN discovered Delirium Red, a Belgian cherry beer that’s somewhere around 12 or 13 % alcohol per volume.  Thought I’d died and gone to heaven…

If I even BEGIN to talk about Russian pastries & desserts, that’s going to need a whole post to itself, because it DESERVES its own post.  I’ll save it for later, but I’ll tantalize you with this photo of a single case of cookies in a St. Petersburg bakery:

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bakery…droooooool!

Now hit me up with some questions!  GO!

Guest Post at SRAS’ Art in Russia Website

My final article for SRAS’ Summer 2013 program is posted!  You can read it here:

Program Review: Art and Museums in Russia

I’m very excited about everything I learned while I was there, and excited to carry these experiences and this inspiration forward – in my academics, my creative life, and my personal life.  It’s been an amazing summer, and I’ve still got a month to do more awesome stuff with myself before I stuff my brain full of more awesomeness this school year!  Woot!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation….

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View from the roof of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

I spent the last 3 weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Now, if you’re thinking that 3 weeks is not very long for a study abroad semester, you are (a) correct and (b) not aware of how much can be packed into 3 weeks with sufficient effort and enthusiasm.  Ha!  I’m happy to say that, for just about every page of my beautiful DK Guide to St. Petersburg, I can point to at least one listing and say, “I’ve been there!”

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One of my favorite paintings in the Russian Museum

I’ve written a series of articles for SRAS (the School of Russian and Asian Studies, the organization which ran my program) – a pre-departure research article (previously posted on this blog) about Russian artist Aristarkh Lentulov, and the following 2 articles about some of the museum studies experience gained during my trip:

1. Archaeological Collections and Curation at the Hermitage

2. Painting Restoration Methods of the Hermitage

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A stormy day over the Hermitage Museum

My final article, a trip summary, has not yet posted to the SRAS blog.  In the meantime, let me say that I absolutely loved St. Petersburg.  It’s a beautiful city, and going in the summertime (when the sun only goes down for a few hours per night, at most) was fantastic!  The amount of art, architecture, and history you can encounter within one block in St. Petersburg is overwhelming.  My travel journal is around 45 pages (single-spaced!) and right now, I honestly can’t think how to sum up that much experience in one little blog post, so I will leave it at my articles and a few photos for now, and post parts of my travel journal from time to time in the next few weeks.IMG_0887

On the Oreninbaum Estate

When I Go to Russia….

For half my life now, I’ve wanted to go to Russia.  In less than a month, I’ll be heading to St. Petersburg for a four-week program on museum studies and the history of Russian art.  The first question most people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Russian is, “Why Russian?”  I find this question incredibly irritating (I’ve never heard anybody question why any other language) but that’s a rant I don’t need to get into here and now….

Anyway, the answer is, because I love Russian literature.  It’s what got me started being interested in Russia, starting with Dostoevsky and expanding to Lermentov, Bulgakov, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev.  No, I’ve never managed to really get into Tolstoy, in case you’re wondering.  And though Dostoevsky and I disagree on some major philosophical points, he remains one of my all-time favorite authors.  His ability to make thoroughly despicable people into heartbreakingly sympathetic characters and his intense portrayal of the fragility, beauty, and horror of the human psyche at the height of his literary career is impressive in itself, but his growth and change as an author is possibly even more admirable.  In his early works, he writes like an awkward, dreamy young man (not unlike many of his early narrators).  After his arrest, mock-execution, and exile, his writing flourishes – all his early skill with writing beautifully-crafted words from the heart bursts out of his dream-state youth into full awareness of the realities around him, and his full strength as a writer, as a social commentator, as an observer of human behavior, finally came through.

As a writer, I find the intensity of his development inspiring.  I can’t say that I ever want to experience a last-minute pardon from execution or a decade’s imprisonment in Siberia, but I can say that I hope that any difficult, frightening, awful times in my own life (because, let’s face it, everybody experiences some hard times) will push my writing to new levels, open me up to new and profound possibilities, and strengthen my creativity into something with real power behind it.  A good writer is a nice thing to be, but to be a great writer takes not just ability, but growth.

The Dostoevsky Museum isn’t on my program’s list of sites, but I’ll definitely go on my own to see it, and his grave site nearby.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that visit when the time comes!