Oliver O’Grady on an archaeological dig in East Lomond, from an obituary in the Courier, linked through
My discovery of this was one of those terrible things Google can do to you with auto-suggestions. This summer I am reckoning, since we can’t go abroad, to embark on a Scots road-trip of Pictish theme, and consequently I was searching up a list of sites that included the erstwhile Pictish palace at Forteviot. It is quite hard to find out what there is to see at the site from the Internet, and so I put into Google the name of the man who had led the dig, Oliver O’Grady, and Google suggested “… archaeologist death”. And this turned out to be true and left me quite shocked and dismayed, mainly because he was only 39, but also because everyone else who knew him is clearly at least as shocked and dismayed; this has surprised everyone.
I think Dr O’Grady would himself have been surprised to know he’d get an obituary on my blog; we met only twice, and it was a long time ago. The first time was my second International Medieval Congress (not the same as the International Congress on Medieval Studies), at Leeds in 2006. At that point I had just finished my doctorate and was at last in temporarily secure work in the Fitzwilliam Museum, but despite being employed numismatically and doctorally qualified as a Catalanist charter geek, I had not (still have not) dropped my old interest in Pictland and so when I saw a Scotland session with a paper called ‘Assemblies in Medieval Scotland: landscape and the performance of memory’ I went along. Dr O’Grady, who at this point would have been 25 and presumably not yet Dr, was the first speaker, and the memory of him has just stuck with me, partly of course because like myself he was a long-haired bearded guy wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, but unlike me he was actually showing it whereas I was hiding in conference garb. Still, obviously one of the black-clad brethrenI’ve sometimes been thankful to be recognised by. I also remember him being quite nervous and rumbly and having been at the beginning of what turned out to be the long-running Forteviot project. We talked briefly afterwards but he was kind of carried off by his colleagues. Thereafter, his name came up here and there and it became clear he was doing big things (like discovering ‘the birth certificate of Scotland’). I know I ran into him again once more but I cannot work out from my notes and conference programmes where it was. So I can only say that I got a very good impression of the guy from that first paper and have always remembered him. I would have liked to talk to him about his sites and try out my plural Pictland idea on someone who’d got a better idea than most about what the centralisation of that kingdom looked like on the ground.
Given that I can say so little, therefore, and that from so long ago, I have to use words of others, borrowed from that article in The Courier that gave me the bad news:
“Falkland Stewardship Trust chairman Joe Fitzpatrick said there was ‘shock and disbelief’ around the centre following news that Oliver – a close collaborator and one of Scotland’s leading archaeologists – had died. ‘Oliver was a friend and colleague who impressed everyone who had the pleasure of working with him,’ said Mr Fitzpatrick. ‘He led the three archaeological excavations on East Lomond in 2014, 17 and 19 and his warmth, openness and encouragement were appreciated by all our excavation volunteers and staff. No one’s “theory” was dismissed and his patient explanations were educative and informative. He loved being able to engage and involve community members in archaeological discovery…”
And there’s more there, from more people, and I’m sure there is still more over the social web, but it’s obviously not much comfort for them, his family, the field or anyone really. I fear we lost another of the good ones.
By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner … Continue reading →
My apologies for the lack of a post last week; a combination of dispiritment at the state of the world and a lot to do on the Monday that wasn’t possible to get ready except at the weekend are my excuses. Let me make up for it somewhat with something hopefully a bit more thought-provoking, which I stubbed to think about in April 2017 but still seems worth exploring a bit. It sort of starts here.
LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship that you can buy and assemble
I come not to criticise LEGO‘s historicity, you understand; we could go a long way into the difference between the mythic and the historical image of the Viking before we got to a conclusion about whether it is OK that those helmets are horned. But they exemplify something that came to my mind after, in April 2017, my department had an external review, during which one of the reviewers talked about using LEGO as a teaching aid.1 At the time, I confess to thinking this a bit infantile; since then, I must say, I have seen it done well and been converted. A class of first-years in groups each given a small bundle of LEGO pieces and told to build something in ten minutes that expressed chivalry brought out a good few knights on horseback, yes, but also, because of people wanting to use all the pieces or acknowledge that not everyone in the age of chivalry actually was a knight, some quite multi-layered symbolism piled up on those models. In general, it got them putting stuff they’d read into action in a way I don’t think talking would have done by itself, and I only wish I’d had the idea myself.2 So I’m not against the technique, just to make that clear, but a colleague who works on much more modern violence, racism and atrocity felt then that it would be really tasteless and impolitic to try and model anything they taught in LEGO, and it got me thinking.
The thought was, is there a line in history on one side of which this kind of modelling becomes inappropriate or insensitive? When I was a child, this wasn’t a question one would have had to ask, because LEGO basically didn’t do violence: I, a Star Wars fan of early vintage, was always a bit disappointed that their various spaceships and moon exploration sets, fancy or functional, did not feature laser guns. But even then, they did knights and castles sets (though right now they do not, as the last range apparently didn’t sell…), and as we see above it wasn’t long before they embarked on pirates. Again, I am not out to critique LEGO’s choices here, not even the fact that since then they have also done ninja and Viking ranges. But I wonder if we have a cut-off? As far as I can see, pirates is about as modern as they get with anything that’s not current film or TV properties like superheroes, and pirates are almost timeless in the popular imagination anyway, though very much a live concern that happens to people in some seas even so. Obviously there are some non-LEGO toy ranges that come closer to the modern violent than this: Action Man is the most obvious survivor from my childhood, but when I was a child I had (in fact, have recently had to reclaim from my mother’s attic, so now have again, I admit) a lot of farm toys made by a company called Britains who also did toy soldiers. The two aspects of the company now seem to have diverged and split across the Atlantic, but I notice that neither is doing one thing they used to do, cowboys and Indians. So perhaps that has become unacceptable (though somewhat to my horror, the toy soldier section of the company now also has a Vikings range…).
Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen
So OK, pirates in popular culture are basically ahistorical, fine, and I suppose one could make the same kind of argument for Vikings, and at least with the Vikings we have contemporary literature of that culture which suggests that many Vikings would have been more or less fine with the idea that their exploits of seafaring, skulduggery (and skull-drinkery) and superviolence would be re-enacted by children with a variety of toys nine to eleven centuries after they were committed.3 Perhaps that’s even true of Western European knights to an extent: the Chanson de Roland and Bertran de Born could be enlisted to support it.4 But I don’t imagine any of these companies are going to start making toys of seventh-century Arab soldiers just because there’s some really powerful early Arabic war poetry; that would be a bit too close to the bone still somehow, wouldn’t it? Likewise, discussions here long past suggest that the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team still do a haka before their matches would not make it OK, or even successful, to produce a range of figures from the Maori wars for children to play with.5
So where’s the threshold? It’s evidently not about time: it’s about relevance. But to whom? Lindesfarne was sacked in 793, as long-term readers of this blog will remember all too well, and apparently England is over that. But we’ve had angry comments on this blog before now about the Battle of Yarmuk a century and a half before, Battle of Manzikert, only three centuries later, and about Byzantine campaigns against the Bulgars and the attitude of the historiography surrounding them to the Bulgarians, and I almost don’t like to remember what else. A lot of this stuff still matters to people in relevant places. How do the average Kalinago person, or any of the people who haven’t made it on a voyage through the Gulf of Aden in recent years, feel about LEGO pirate sets? Slaughters of the past still matter in many peoples’ presents, and I wonder what it says about the European West that it has managed so cheerfully to internalise its medieval ones. Perhaps it’s another case of Kathleen Davis’s arguments in Periodization and Sovereignty, in which we have set such a big barrier between ‘We, the Moderns’, and the past we drag round with us, that everyone on the other side can be reduced to caricatures and mini-figures.6
But they weren’t, you know; for some people that still matters, and I’m not sure the reasons it doesn’t for others are good ones.
1. I should explain that in the UK English I know LEGO is a brand name and the bits they make are LEGO bricks or pieces. LEGOs meaning the bricks is perhaps an Americanism? and has spread, but I, stuck in my childish ways, resist it, so it won’t be appearing elsewhere in this post.
2. Given the which, I should give credit where it is due and it is due to Dr Claudia Rogers, of my current local parish, and from watching whose teaching I have evidently learnt something for my own.
3. Try, for example, the Saga of Burnt Njal, which you can get in Penguin as Robert Cook (transl.), Njal’s Saga (London 2001) or online in an older translation here. It is not shy about bloodshed!
4. Glyn Burgess (transl.), The Song of Roland (London 1990), in Penguin, or again an older translation online, John O’Hagan (transl.), The Song of Roland, translated into English verse (London 1880), online here. There doesn’t seem to be a current English translation of Bertran de Born’s works, but you can find a couple, including the most relevant, on De Re Militari here.
5. I admit that I am rather horrified to find that W. Britain, the original and continuing model soldier side of the Britains business, still make an Anglo-Zulu war range, including a set called ‘Clearing the Yard’ including redcoats carrying away dead Zulu warriors. There are matching ones of redcoats falling under Zulu attack, Zulus looting British bodies and indeed of Zulus attacking a field ambulance, so it’s not as if the violence or indeed the victory is all one way, though the balance of depiction could be interrogated, but aside from that and a smaller range from the Anglo-Egyptian Wars, they seem to have given up on colonial-era figures. Anyway, I digress but I am very surprised to see this still on sale at the same time as we are being so urgently reminded that black lives matter, and it makes me feel a bit queasy about my old toy tractors.7
6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008), which every time I cite I am stuck afresh with regret about the lousy review I gave it a decade ago.
7. Addendum: it turns out that hiding under the name ‘Clash of Empires’ is in fact a range that includes Native Americans and settlers, though more eighteenth-century than nineteenth- and not featuring cowboys. “The historical appearance of European soldiers and settlers and the native people are accurately rendered in every detail.” Now, at $72 a pop, these are not children’s toys any more. People are presumably modelling this stuff, at really quite considerable cost. What leads one to do that, do you suppose?
I know my recall isn't perfect, and I'm always anxious to correct mistakes and happy to acknowledge them. If you think a correction is necessary or appropriate, please leave a comment or contact me by e-mail.