My Eureka Moment: Listening for the quiet voices

Lin Foxhall's rural childhood enabled her to see the significance of studying the lives of people traditionally overlooked by historians and archaeologists

March 25, 2010

High schools in rural Pennsylvania didn't run to Greek, and in the late 1960s Latin had largely vanished. But these were Cold War times and Russian was available so that we might "know our enemy". My motive for learning the language had nothing to do with politics. By the time I was 15, I'd read Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Tolstoy in translation, courtesy of the local public library, and I desperately wanted to know them in their original tongue. My Russian still isn't good enough for that, but it provided the first step in a direction I'd never expected.

One of the great benefits of the American liberal-arts approach to university education is that it encourages even the most narrowly focused tortoise to look out of its shell, while allowing the more hare-brained to explore a wide range of subjects, unfamiliar approaches and novel ideas.

When I arrived at Bryn Mawr College, I was definitely one of the hare-brained. I'd always thought I'd be a scientist: a biologist, a chemist or a geologist, maybe. But by the time I finished school, these pathways no longer seemed fully satisfying. By 1971, the world had turned upside down. The Prague Spring had withered, the Vietnam War festered, rotting the heart out of America, and, in the midst of the military-industrial complex, civil-rights, social and sexual revolutions had blossomed. For me at that moment, science, as it was then, seemed sterile - no longer able to provide the answers to the critical questions of the time.

Naive and wonderstruck by all the new intellectual toys to play with, I took ancient Greek on impulse. I decided I needed to know something about (as I then imagined it) the beginnings of Western thought. And, I reckoned, since I knew some Russian, Greek should be manageable. That indeed turned out to be correct. What I hadn't expected was the eureka moment: within a week, I knew that, in some way, this was going to be my future.

One of the things I rapidly realised as an undergraduate, arriving as a dumb kid from the sticks, was that many things I took for granted were alien to the majority who grew up in sanitised suburbia. (Other people don't kill their own chickens for Sunday dinner?) When I first read Hesiod's Works and Days, set in a rural community in the late 8th century BC, his description of the agricultural year and its associated tasks was familiar ground to me but incomprehensible to the rest of the class and, at times, to our lecturer.

In the 1970s, Classics and classical archaeology as disciplines focused primarily on high culture: political and military history, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture and the monumental architecture created by Greek men. Banal aspects of life such as farming or weaving did not seem worth studying to most scholars, and only a few saw the value of social archaeology and history.

Gradually, the many and varied themes I wanted to pursue converged on the same big questions. How did people do things, ordinary things? How did people make things? What was it like to live in an ancient Greek family in an ancient Greek house? What was it like to work the land and make a living? To make pots? To make pots that actually worked for cooking? And what did they cook? A rural life makes you very practical in comparison with many academics. There is nothing like standing in a kitchen full of half a dead cow and three giant bin bags overflowing with fat and suet to make you really understand the story of Prometheus, who deceived the gods by offering the bones of an ox wrapped in fat on the altar. Even allowing for the scrawniness of ancient Greek cattle, the wider significance and practical context of Greek animal sacrifice and communal meat-eating becomes very real.

From my graduate student days onwards, I began to combine the exploration of anthropology and social theory with the investigation of the nitty-gritty of ancient technologies, especially agrarian ones, in their wider social context. I was lucky to be based in stimulating places that did not force me to choose between pursuing texts and material culture: at University College London (in the departments of both anthropology and history) and the University of Leicester (the School of Archaeology and Ancient History). The questions I have been asking throughout my career demand the skills of archaeology, history and much more.

For most of my life I seem to have been walking uphill, both figuratively and literally. I love mountains. Almost everywhere I have ever worked has been rugged, and I suspect few people have spent as many summers in the Mediterranean as I have without ever going swimming. Not many women have got to the forefront of Mediterranean field archaeology and, of those, few have children.

Doing fieldwork as a family can be stressful for everyone. Moments such as the time we were stopped in Athens airport by customs officials convinced that our travel cot was an illegal video player are enough to put off anybody - we had to unpack it and demonstrate it in use, complete with baby, before they were convinced. For a long while our lives consisted of busy teaching terms at opposite ends of England, interrupted by summer fieldwork in Greece and southern Italy. As I walked uphill in this figurative sense, I was not surprised, though it grieved me, to see how many women dropped off the path along the way.

The good thing about walking uphill is the eureka moment when you get to the top. The first time I saw the Athenian Acropolis, I'd pushed a pushchair all the way to the summit, and got the Parthenon full in the face. And nothing but nothing beats the thrill of discovery when you reach the top and there is something in front of your eyes that no one has recognised for several millennia.

The best of those moments was a weekend picnic with my University of Cambridge colleague John Robb and our combined families, when we discovered a Greek site high in the Aspromonte mountains of southern Calabria. No Greeks ought to have lived there, according to received wisdom, but work on this site is contributing to a much larger debate about what being "Greek" even meant in the complex multicultural, colonial setting of the southern Italian countryside around 500BC.

What I set out to do was to listen for voices from the past that are particularly hard to hear. And to do that you have to be imaginative and eclectic about the ways you approach them, and prepared to explore a very wide range of pathways. Now, thanks to a generous award from the Leverhulme Trust, I am doing exactly that in collaboration with colleagues at the universities of Leicester, Exeter and Glasgow through "Tracing Networks: Craft Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond".

The first eureka moment came when my museum studies friend and colleague Ann Brysbaert, an archaeological scientist and conservator, came into my office waving a call for proposals and said, "we could do this". I saw that yes, indeed we could.

Ann and I sketched out a plan and contacted other colleagues in archaeology and archaeological science. But we decided that, to do the research properly, we needed computer science expertise. Ann contacted her friend Emilio Tuosto, who contacted his head of department at Leicester, Jose Fiadeiro. The four of us met and the "eureka" was almost instantaneous.

Basically, what we all wanted to investigate was how knowledge moves. The computer scientists could use semantic web technologies to help us archaeologists organise what were going to be large and complex datasets. We wanted to find out how the knowledge of how to make things travelled around the ancient Mediterranean and farther afield to other European societies.

As scholars of the ancient past, we needed to interrogate artefacts first and foremost, but also to consider texts, sites, landscapes and similar societies in other periods and places. We were tracking how technological knowledge was transmitted from one person, group or place to another. How was it adopted and adapted? How did objects themselves play a role in knowledge exchange? How did the political, economic and social networks in which this happened operate? Why did people make the specific technological choices they made? And how did innovation emerge?

Simultaneously, it became clear to the computer scientists that these ancient networks of knowledge might be applied to the digital age. Our archaeological viewpoint linked procurement, production, use, consumption and recycling, as part of an overarching social process. This could serve as a model for going beyond consumer-oriented software applications to develop new approaches to future software design, improving the transmission of digital information. The result has been a dream come true: a genuinely integrated cross-disciplinary project with fabulous colleagues.

Now, a year into the research programme, we are building further networks with space scientists and engineers at Leicester to discover new ways of interrogating our artefacts to hear those voices from the past. In the process, we hope that we will also stretch the techniques and methodologies of our physical science colleagues in new directions.

In addition to serving as principal investigator for the Tracing Networks programme, my own corner of the research focuses on loom weights - ubiquitous clay objects generally considered so mundane that even the keenest archaeologists usually throw them into bags and never look at them again. Loom weights were used to hold taut the lengthwise (warp) threads on the upright looms common in antiquity.

However, thanks to a combination of written sources and visual representations, we know that weaving and textile manufacture were practically and symbolically associated with women right across the class and status spectrum. By extension, so were the loom weights themselves.

The voices of women in ancient Greece are particularly difficult to hear. Most of what we know about them comes through the words of men; so women are often, in effect, "prehistoric" in a historical era. Even the classical monuments were largely created by (and for) masculine perspectives. But the loom weights we hold in our hands are objects that we can be pretty certain were mostly used by women.

Many loom weights are marked with what appear to be personal identifiers. Sometimes these are personal stamp seals, which served in the ancient world almost as PINs do for us. But they can also be marked with the impressions of jewellery, fingerprints, bones and seeds. It seems that they were the valued (although not valuable) personal possessions of women. When we find them in well-defined archaeological contexts, it then becomes possible to trace networks of women across landscapes and over time.

So, for example, small numbers of "heritage" loom weights appear on sites all over the Greek world: instances where a loom weight may be 100-200 years older than the context in which it was found and appears to have been last used. Our working hypothesis is that these probably travelled through families, passed down from mother to daughter. But what other knowledge travelled with them?

Close visual inspection of the holes pierced through them suggests that even loom weights of identical shapes within a small geographical area might have been used in different ways, ie, attached to the warp threads by different techniques. Why? If this is so, were the choices technologically based, related to particular loom set-ups or the type of cloth being woven? Or were they related to the habits and traditions of weaving in a particular family, workshop or group? And, if the latter, were the techniques used by a particular group a constituent element of how they defined and identified themselves? Can we use this information to establish connections between groups?

To test this hypothesis, I will work closely with my colleagues in engineering and physics to distinguish different types of wear and to determine how these different wear mechanisms might have arisen. So, even the little holes can help us tell a big story, address the big questions and hear those very quiet voices from the distant past.

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