Monday, 28 January 2013

Can love survive…IKEA

Two world travelers meet. They talk. They smile. They fall in love. Their life together goes through its infancy on the road. On the train. Take off. Landing. Bad hotels. Great hotels. Full English breakfast. The proposal. The wedding, planned a continent away. They move. They move again. They place roots. They acquire guest towels and go to dentist appointments. They pack and label boxes and commit to be in one place long enough to take a breath and have a nice cup of tea. They decide to buy a house.406569_10151213001739002_856644626_n

When such weary travelers devote themselves to such a settled lifestyle one question is bound to arise. Can they survive IKEA on a Saturday?

The answer is encompassed in the beautiful German slang term – Jein. Meaning, of course, yes and no. No one can really escape both the euphoria, which comes with checking a furniture item off your list that both matches your design ascetic and your budget, and inevitable disappointment that IKEA invokes.

One can really base the progress of one’s relationship on how the ride home from a trip to IKEA sounds. Is there tense chatter, normal complacency, or eerie silence? The maze-like walkway through IKEA really is the obstacle course with which many a lesser relationship has been tested. But not for pros like us. Oh no. We rock those tiny-fake-apartments and bins of tea candles. Oh IKEA, how many Saturdays have I walked thou hollowed halls? Let me count the flat-packed boxes!

Some tips for a generally satisfying Saturday at IKEA. First, do not go hungry. Pack yourself a granola bar. Second, DO NOT eat the meatballs. There will be posters. It will smell like meatballs. Do not give in. You are almost to the end of the 800 square foot apartment displays. Just follow the arrows!

Third, you will ask your partner to grab the handy paper and pencil IKEA provides and they will roll their eyes at you and mention that you were just there to buy that one thing you promised to only look at and buy that one thing and why do you need to write anything down and take measurements with that useless tiny IKEA measuring tape. Try not to huff off. People are watching.

136645304_a9575335b8_mFourth, try not to judge the families with young children who practice, in public, a series of unfortunate parenting mishaps, such as letting their 2-year-old ride the unsafe way in the shopping cart or jump on all the beds. Remember, that might be you someday and you will probably be worse at it. Especially on a Saturday. Especially in the morning. Especially in the IKEA.

I never visited an IKEA until we moved to DC. The first time was confusing. Why is there a cafeteria filled with elderly people? Why do all the item names have extra vowels and umlauts? How did a Swedish company get Americans to buy such European home décor and walk around saying things like, “should we get the SKÄRPT that match our AKURUM?”

Then after admiring all the nicely designed rooms and vignettes, the arrowed path sends you down the stairs, into the belly of the monster, with cheap bins filled with sadly packaged items stripped of their displayed glory. Even worse, the next stop on the tour is an actual warehouse. No joke. It’s just a warehouse. Where you, yourself, fetch your item. I’d like my minimum wage and a 20-minute lunch break please. At least you can get an oddly-named cinnamon bun on your way out as compensation.

Coming full circle you return to the blessed daylight after forgetting, some time ago, if you entered the store in that light or in total darkness. Either way when you exit it is a surprise. You drive your faithful and familiar car up to the loading dock where it betrays you for not being long enough or oddly shaped enough for all your flat packed boxes. You look to the right and left and warmly smile at other couples in smaller cars, disagreeing in public over the $70.00 delivery charge. “We can just tie it on top.” “Well did you bring rope?” “Of course I didn’t bring rope. What do you think, I just bring rope with me places?” Et cetera.

ikea_assembly_instructions.0Describing the assembling of an IKEA find really would warrant its own entry. And come with instructions. That are hard to understand. And have creepy “people” assisting you. You know you’ve been too often when the figures start playing monsters in your dreams.

Also you learn what this is: IKEA

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Day Trip-Upon-Avon

SAM_2550On the Ides of May we boarded yet another University day trip bus to travel the two and a half hours to Stratford-Upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and location of shameless crepe restaurant: The Food of Love. After pulling off the dual SAM_2534carriageway, the bus took us through some beautiful countryside as we were fortunate to have a fantastic, sunny day with temperatures actually in the 70s. After parSAM_2532king at a leisure center and finding our way towards town, passing another shameless business, a toy store called Much Ado About Toys, we came to the canal whose bank featured statues of famous Shakespearian characters, such as Lady Macbeth and Hamlet (deep in thought.) The actual village was quite small and easy to cover by foot. The many little shops featured an apparently well known Teddy Bear shop (creepy), as well as a book store where guess-who was featured prominently in the local author section.SAM_2537







SAM_2567SAM_2569With only a day to soak up as much Shakespeare as possible, we headed first to the Bard’s grave, located inside Holy Trinity Church which resided picturesquely on the banks of the River Avon. After playing a bit in the gardenSAM_2572s, which held an Alice-in-Wonderland-type ambiance, we found ourselves inside the old church, the oldest surviving building in Stratford dating from 1210. A sign quickly points the way to Shakespeare’s grave, which is free for students to visit. It’s always a touch macabre and odd visiting a grave, and even stranger to photograph it. While in the past such feelings have kept me from snapping pictures of specific graves , tombs (read: Pope John Paul, II), or even caskets, I had no shame when it came to Shakespeare.

SAM_2583Soon after departing Holy Trinity, and a short stroll down the Avon, we discovered the last chain ferry in Britain. At 50p a ride, it was a bargain, but we had other destinations in mind, namely old Willy S’s birthplace. Shakespeare’s House and Gardens is a well kept historic home, complete with period furnishings and exhibitions not only telling of Shakespeare's early years, but also the story of the house as an early public history icon. At one point, with the birthplace being inhabited by new tenants, another museum opened across the street with the original furnishings and artifacts, becoming the birthplace’s rival once it opened to the public.

SAM_2587SAM_2594The museum’s orientation is experiential, featuring multiple rooms displaying images and sound taking the visitor through Shakespeare's life, all ending with a montage of Shakespeare’s legacies including many of the words he added to the English language (including dawn, elbow, and of course gossip.) Once through the house and exhibitions, visitors exit to the gardens where costumed actors recite sonnets (calling out for numbers between 1 and 154) and bits of plays. This was by far the coolest part of the day.

SAM_2597SAM_2609SAM_2604After delicious crepes at Food of Love (I never said I was above the shame of it,) we ventured down the picturesque Avon and rented a rowing boat. I then lived out the dream of many a young woman when Kevin graciously rowed me around the river. It could not have been more beautiful. The sun was shining, the trees were drooping into the river, and fantastic homes lined the water’s edge. We viewed both the Royal Shakespeare Company and Holy Trinity Church from the water, before making a shaky swap with me taking over the oars and Kevin taking his turn to bask in the sunlight.

We visited two more Shakespearian properties before calling it a SAM_2630day. First Nash’s House and New Place, two homes made into one and also where Shakespeare died. In the gardens was an ongoing archaeological dig while indoors featured a public archaeology exhibition, explaining not only what archaeology is but how it’s gone about at the property. After a quick peek we visited Hall’s Croft, Shakespeare's daughter’s house. It was a much shakespear projectlarger home and decorated in the 17th century interpreting a doctor’s home (Shakespeare’s son-in-law’s profession.)  What I loved the most was the yard and small gardens. We shamelessly posed for many photos.SAM_2657

SAM_2660All the gardens we’d visited on this day had a SAM_2627very down-the-rabbit-hole, Alice-in-Wonderland feeling (although completely the wrong feeling for the time period, shouldn’t we have been experiencing an Elizabethan-style romance?)SAM_2638-2SAM_2628SAM_2563SAM_2553






You should be able to view all our photos from the day here.

Friday, 14 January 2011

So, Long Time…No Blog…

SAM_3965Not only did we not continue to update our theses progress (or, in my case, not even start), but we seem to have just deserted you, forcing you to actually read productively, catch up on current events, and possibly even flip through an actual book.  I’d like to say we had good reason to completely abandon this project, but that would only be partially true. Partial because we really only had about two or three months of good reasons to be away, not four. My bad.

What was so pressing as to take us away those first few months? Well just the completion of two theses, another move across the Atlantic, many welcome-home-type events, this little wedding thing, a honeymoon, more packing and more moving which all resulted in an eventual squatting phase, where I continue to find myself to this day. Again, or partially squatting as Kevin is actually contributing to society through a nine to five. Those of us not particularly contributing in the same way, which of course includes Clovis the cat, languish at the Lake House surrounded by the beauty of nature and an increasing itch to fulfill something, or accomplish something, or make something of something, ect.

One way to accomplish such goals, if only in the short term, include firing this puppy back up and rounding out our time in England. So, it was 2010, it was summer. Hit with limited funds and the annoying obligation to complete a thesis, our traveling took a heavy hit. Well, a hit in my book, meaning that we did not “get off the rock” (my expression for leaving Great Britain) and instead soaked up as much cold and grey summer as we could in the good old GB before moving back to America. Actually, playing around in some of England’s best destinations was no joke and a fantastic excuse to clock some more train hours before returning to the land of awful public transportation. And after a year living in England, that’s really saying something.

But I digress, let’s focus our attention on what I call the lost summer. Lost because it was not actually summer but some early Spring/late Autumn monstrosity, complete with the need to wear warm gloves in August in order to fetch milk down the street. In our current cold spell my desire to find some hole in the ozone somewhere while burning my toes in the sand has only increased. During the lost summer we traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Durham, Heathersage, London, Oxford, Bath, and Brighton. Kevin also went on a testosterone-fest-weekend to Whitby. We experienced the World Cup, England-style, discovered new parks in and around our neighborhood of Crookes, and took a final train ride to Coinsbrough Castle to visit Kevin’s thesis site. We wavered between being tired of England and being nostalgic. Missing home but not wanting to leave the new home we had made. Personally I miss the crazy, drunk man who sang sweet songs, I liked to think just to me, across the street from my window, next to the bus stop.

I’ll work to fill the gaps in our travelogue, sift through my thoughts and feeling towards our time abroad, and deal a bit with my reverse culture shock (seriously America, what is Bridalplasty?! And I’m OK I that I STILL have no idea who Justin Bieber is.) But bear with me, I’m a bit rusty.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Mad Methodologies: July Thesis Update

Yes, that’s right: It’s the 10th of August. Despite that fact, dear readers, you’ll have to excuse my tardy thesis update for July on account of travel/busy work schedule/apathy.

Since the month of July has seen me almost entirely engrossed in the laboratory, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share just what it is that I do with my hours and hours alone in a room surrounded by human and animal bones. We’ll take a look at what my average ‘lab day’ looked like, what I was recording, and what I hope to be able to do with that data.

Most weekdays during July saw me getting up and lugging my computer, notebooks, and various archaeological reports and journal articles down the steep hills of Crookes towards the Department of Archaeology’s Northgate House. I’d been given a specific long lab bench in the osteology teaching laboratory for my work over the summer since I was meant to be sharing the room with a handful of human osteology and physical anthropology graduate students. However, it’s been just me for most of the summer. So, I can’t complain there. These benches have been covered in padded linoleum to help dampen the fall of any stray bones on the table, but I generally just drop bones on the floor anyway while feeling like I’m sorting piles of dirty toys on a kitchen floor. Archaeology is great if you like drawing with coloured pencils and digging in the dirt, incidentally.

My major professor/advisor is known for his zooarchaeological work through Iron Age, Saxon, and Medieval Britain – mostly with the development of pig domestication. Most recently, he’s been one of the primary researchers on the animal bones recovered from the large, National Geographic-sponsored Stonehenge Riverside Project. So, I’ve adopted his large database structure from that to use in recording my material. Archaeologically, you very rarely find a completely intact bone. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen some in my assemblage, but that’s because these particular cuts of cattle meat were just tossed into the moat 800 years ago and haven’t really been bothered since. Many factors influence what material finds its way to the archaeologist’s lab. These can include the slaughter and/or butchering of a particular animal, where those cuts of meat wound up, what happened to the parts no one chose to eat, how the bones were discarded, what’s happened to them since then, and how archaeologists have chosen to recover them (e.g. you very rarely find a lot of smaller mammals or birds because the bones are small enough that the archaeologist have to be consciously using a small-mesh screen to sieve the fill during excavation – without remembering this you may think that you have found a site with nothing living on it but cows and horses and nothing smaller!)

I generally dump the particular box or bag I’m working on onto the table and sort the bones and teeth into piles. All teeth and jaws in a pile, all easily-identifiable long bones of mammals and birds, fragments too broken to be able to do anything with, all ankle/wrist bones, all finger bones, all pelvises, all shoulder blades, etc. Ribs and vertebrae, because they’re fragile and look very similar among species, just get piled together and I’ll note that, from this context, I have some ‘large’ and ‘medium’ ribs and maybe just some ‘medium’ vertebrae. There is a scale there, though – medium is sheep, goat, fallow deer, roe deer, etc. Small is essentially cat/rabbit or smaller.

Next, it’s just a matter of running through the piles. Obviously, identifying a bone as the lower half of a sheep tibia tells you that, at some point, a sheep died and left one of his legs around. But if you want to go beyond just a list of taxa (species) at a site, you have to measure the bones. This is called biometry, and is the best tool zooarchaeologists have to talk about the sex, age, management practices, etc. of domestic and wild animals. For instance, if you look at lots of sheep teeth from a site and note how worn down the teeth are, you can get an idea of age. If all of the teeth are very worn, obviously the sheep were pretty long-lived. If everything you find is very unworn, or even still erupted out of the jaw, with lots of milk (“baby”) teeth, then the poor lambs didn’t make it long before being killed – perhaps to free up their mother’s milk for human use.

The Department of Archaeology at Sheffield has a pretty fantastic reference collection of most species you’d have ever found in Britain, with rows of shelves and cabinets with “box of an adult sheep” and “box of young chicken,” etc. The most common large mammals – horse, donkey, cow, sheep, goat, red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, cat, dog, hare, badger, otter, etc. – have all of their respective elements in more convenient drawers in the little office next to my lab, so I tended to make a few dozen trips an hour back and forth to confirm an identification. I’d note that what I had was the distal end of a right sheep femur (for example), and then move back to my computer and calipers, where I’d measure all the dimensions one needs to compare femurs, record the measurements in the database, and move on. Obviously, there’s a method to keeping track of two parts of the same bone. One of the primary pieces of data most zooarchaeologists compile first is the “minimum numbers of individuals” or “MNI” of a group of bones. Essentially: if you have 5 sheep femurs – 2 lefts and 3 rights, and you assume that throughout history sheep have all always had just the two per body, than you would say that you have at least three sheep. Obviously, there could have been 17 sheep there, but three’s our best minimum guess. So, I have to treat the bottom half of a femur and the top half of a femur separately, and when I go to do my counts, take into consideration that they could actually be the same femur and thus shouldn’t be counted twice.

Something that took a longer period of my July time than I had planned was the teeth. Teeth. I’ve not had much experience in the way of looking at teeth so far in my zooarchaeological career, so I had to do a bit of catch-up for a few days. But, surprisingly, once you get the hold of them, teeth are much quicker than bones. Especially because you generally only find molars and premolars, and I tend to have been lucky to have mostly complete mandibles (lower jaw) and maxillas (upper jaws, usually with some skull attached) which helps figure out which tooth is which. Mammals, including humans, all thankfully have a known dental formula for how many teeth we have where, and the sequence in which we loose our milk teeth for permanent teeth. For these too, I’d have to consult our drawers of mandibles and jaws of loose teeth, then record the wear of the teeth, measure the width and length, etc.

That was essentially my July, working from 10 AM to 8 or 9 PM every day, getting home at 10 PM just in time to seemingly start it all again. Now that I’m finished with that and have all of my data, this week I’m doing nothing but analyzing my data and creating the tables and figures I’ll need for my thesis. I can compare my two sites to each other with the sizes of sheep, for instance, to examine if the castle site had larger, more well-fed sheep than the manor house, or maybe they were just being used for wool instead of meat, in which case I’d look for smaller, but longer-lived, sheep in my data. Or, I can compare my sites with data from other castle sites in the area to see if my castle falls in line with neighboring land-owning estates in terms of the type and size of animals found there. As in another example: I’ve found a fair number of chicken, pheasant, and even some geese and duck bones. How do these specialty items compare to other similar sites? In the end, after all, it’s all about not just what was being eaten, but the choices people made in terms of the amount of effort and energy they put into their diet and their livestock.

Monday, 9 August 2010

A Spa Town in August

IMG_5919 After a couple days in Oxford, Kevin and I rode the 60 some odd miles to Bath, in Somerset. Bath is known for its two main periods of popularity, the Roman invasion and its re-discovery during the Georgian and Victorian periods as a holiday destination, serving as a fascination for Georgian architects.

SAM_3520 We arrived in Bath late, easily found our wonderful guest house, and ventured out to introduce ourselves to the town. Just a few minutes walk and we came across one of Bath’s most prominent landmarks, its Abbey. Bath Abbey was beautiful in the sunset twilight. Although it appeared like a typical large abbey found throughout  England, its interesting carvings on its front facade featured IMG_5958angels climbing a latter to heaven. When we returned the next day I was excited to look inside. Here I learned that Edgar was crowned within the Abbey. Now this may not excite most people (who is Edgar, ect…) but I had a little happy history moment, remembering that Edgar was the first King of England, uniting Northumbria and Mercia. Queen Elizabeth visited the Abbey in 1973 to commemorate 1,000 years of the monarchy. Of course this commemoration was commemorated with a commemorative plaque.

What I enjoyed of Bath Abbey was not only its beauty and historical significance but also the entire SAM_3531experience as it was not cumbersome. At other grand religious buildings (read: St. Paul’s Cathedral; York Minster) visitors pay large sums of money to be herded around, unable to see much of anything given large crowds and camera-happy masses. It is refreshing to be asked for a small sum of money while chatting with friendly volunteers (I find when the admission is low you always give an extra donation regardless due to the inviting atmosphere). Volunteers were available throughout the church should visitors have any questions, guide pamphlets were provided, and the crypts accessible. We’ve had similar comfortable experiences at Durham and Edinburgh.

SAM_3538While touring the Abbey and enjoying the fabulous art installation comprised of illuminated manuscripts and needlepoint, we were intercepted by an elderly gentleman in search of someone to whom to tell his boyhood Bath experiences. This continued my lifelong trend of being inviting to random wandering old people who like to talk about their past. I don’t know if I have a certain kind of face or what, but elderly people see me in a crowd and flock. He had lived through two Nazi bombing raids on Bath, his own neighborhood church demolished in the process.

SAM_3558 After a nice walk we came across the Circus and the Royal Crescent. Both were designs of Georgian architects. Bath was a spa town, first during the Roman period (although the natural springs were used by local groups for spiritual purposes) as a SAM_3561sacred healing center in England and later as a fashionable holiday destination. Due to the boom of visitors during the Georgian period, architects found many building projects in Bath.  The Crescent is considered the greatest example of Georgian architecture in all of Britain, but I won’t lie and say it was awe inspiring. It was a bunch of tall, typical Georgian houses shaped into a crescent. Yes, when taking into account the stylistic and mathematical implications of building such a semi-circle in the 18th century it is impressive. But in the current day and age it seemed simply like a nice backdrop behind the Victoria Park, where one can take in a picnic or a quick game of football.

IMG_5775 After a bit more of a walk we found the Jazz Cafe, which I highly recommend. I happily enjoyed a mezze platter which included a very tasty beetroot and walnut dip, while Kevin was overjoyed to find a locally brewed beer which was actually served cold and tasted of America. After such a delightful meal we continued the sense of relaxation with a calm boat tour down the Avon. Amongst the highlights of the tour was Bathampton, a tiny village outside of Bath whose churchyard features the burials of the inventor of Plasticine, Britain’s version of play-dough, and Walter Sickert, the main suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.

IMG_5776 We soon became freezing, as the British weather is highly unpredictable (the only thing one seems to be able to predict is that one should, at all times, pack a sweater, a thicker sweater, an umbrella, and a sun hat). We shivered the last twenty minutes of the trip before escaping to our guest house for more layers. Spotting a vegetarian pub earlier in the day, we headed in that direction, expecting it to be a unique dining experience. And it was. Typical British pub food but with all vegetarian and/or vegan options, fantastic.

SAM_3588 The next morning we left our guesthouse early in order to catch our tour van to Stonehenge. About an hour from Bath, tour companies operate three hour tours from Bath to the famous ancient site. The countryside was beautiful and fulfilled my need to see the Cotswolds at least once while living in England. As we drove through typical villages, complete with examples of thatched roofs, we passed a Victorian answer to ancient hill figures, a large chalk horse carved into a hillside.

IMG_5813 At last we viewed Stonehenge. Coming around a turn in the highway, it seemed surreal that we were viewing the real structure. I think it is an image too infused into our lives to take it seriously upon your first view. Also the general irritation with museum and historic site visitors had reached its zenith during our visit to Stonehenge, being ushered through by English Heritage staff, wading through hundreds of people all slowly revolving around the stone structures, all taking pictures of every little thing in that empty field. I plan on discussing this issue further in a subsequent post.

SAM_3591 But back to my impressions of Stonehenge. The audio tour, which comes with your admission price, was well done. How else are they to interpret such a thing? Visitors are not allowed near the stones, interpretive signs would be difficult as so many visitors would crowd them, needing replacement often. Costumed interpreters would be difficult as there is not yet a full consensus on what the stones are, who used them, and for what purpose. Also I feel such interpretation would cheapen the experience. Thus the audio guide fulfilled its purpose of providing general interpretation and could be easily translated as during our visit we noticed the international pull of the site.

IMG_5871 Seeing such an iconic site (which exists a certain way in your own mind based on its use in textbooks, television, movies, and novels) is always an odd experience as it never seems based in reality due to the fact that it can never match completely your preconceptions. It’s like seeing the Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower. It is impressive, but seeing it in reality always makes it less of something. Smaller, possible, tangible. In one word, real, and less of a fantasy.

IMG_5949 Leaving Stonehenge we were both hit with a wave of warm sleepiness, lulled by the rocking of the van. A nap seemed necessary and inevitable, but first we had to power through as we sill had not visited the main attraction in Bath, the baths. The Roman Baths are hot springs, the only of their kind in IMG_5887 Britain, and were first used by Celtic groups before being discovered and developed by the invading Romans. They constructed a temple as the baths were seen to have spiritual uses. The baths included different treatment rooms, hot baths and cool plunges, similar to a modern spa experience. After the Romans left the bath waters continued to be used and spas developed from the 16th century to today.

The museum, although expensive, does a good job at interpreting the IMG_5922Roman bathing experience, generally through the use of an audio guide. Exhibitions include artifacts discovered during excavations of the baths, the most interesting, I found, being curse tablets. Bathers, many of whom had their clothing stolen while bathing, wrote curses towards the thieves on small pieces of metal, throwing them into the sacred waters. Once again we found ourselves squeezed into small spaces with far too many visitors, all taking asinine photos of objects that, once home, they will not remember. Spacing visitors is an important aspect of crowd control apparently not employed by this particular institution.

IMG_5927IMG_5945 After another pleasant walk through Bath, visiting the Victoria Park and Royal Crescent once more, and after a much deserved rest, we enjoyed a farewell dinner at a tapas restaurant before crashing early as our 6:45am bus ride loomed the next morning. Once again travel can not simply be simple, but the cheapest means of travel back to Sheffield (which, mind you is about a  three and a half hour car ride) meant taking a bus three hours to London (which is 97 miles away), a quick tube ride, and a two and a half hour train ride north to Sheffield. Although this trip went seamlessly I could have done without the badly behaved children, the screaming babies, and the two men on either side of me having loud and never-ending phone conversations. At least Sheffield remained as we left it, cold and rainy with a side of sweeping winds.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Dreaming Spires of Oxford

SAM_3510 Well! I’m still surprised that our time in England is rapidly drawing to a close – though I’m more and more worried each day as the time until my thesis, of which I haven’t written a single word yet, is due. However, with our dwindling time and dwindling funds, Ashley and I decided that we just had to get one last long weekend out of the way before we hunkered down for the remaining five weeks of thesis madness.

As usual, Ashley is the mistress of planning great trips quickly and thoroughly. She booked all of our travel – not an easy or cheap thing to do in England; home of a pretty sad state of public transportation affairs - our lodgings, and researched many of the things we wanted to be sure to see while spending two days in Oxford and two days in Bath. Ashley has written a lovely little travelogue of our time in the lovely city of Bath, so I’ll cover our first few days in the historic and enchanting city of Oxford.


As with any city of its particular age, Oxford has a wealth of history and information and a truly and impressively deep sense of character that comes along with it. In addition, of course, is the reputation that has developed in our everyday, mundane, popular culture sort of way that helps colour our impressions of places like Oxford and Cambridge.

Known for its University primarily, Oxford (a Saxon name stemming from the literal ford in the rivers useful for oxen attempting to cross) has a long and storied history that I’ve long found alluring. Even the University itself somehow tugs on your heart as some sort of pure, unadulterated form of truly higher education in a sense that oftentimes seems to have been lost in university systems today. Something more akin to Hogwarts School today than say, modern American and, to a lesser extent, SAM_3341 British university systems. Founded in 1231, the University of Oxford was completely unique at the time as a source of secular and religious education married with the study of Greek works due to their rediscovery in western Europe during the medieval period. Here, young men from wealthy families were sent to study philosophy, arts, and the Scriptures. Unlike modern universities, Oxford is comprised primarily of something like 38 colleges, to which you apply for admission directly. Each college is self-contained, with dorms, dining halls, a chapel, and faculty that you come to Oxford expressly to study (or, as they say, “read”) with. Here, if you choose to read archaeology, for example, the dons in your IMG_5719 college will set your reading and topics, and then you’re on your own for the week. You might spend some days in the Radcliffe Camera or the Bodleian Library, or sit classes in the Faculty of Archaeology or History, but you’re primarily on your own as you study and work towards a thesis topic. Many of these colleges have been founded by wealthy men looking to support a particular demographic in Oxford, all with famous names and reputations like Jesus College, Exeter College, Christchurch College, etc.

IMG_5667Above is a photo from the courtyard of Lincoln College, which Ashley and I were able to pop in to thanks to a lovely tour we took with a old Lebanese Oxford alum who knew the strings to pull to let us have a look inside the normally private colleges. It was also graduation weekend, so of course Oxford was more crowded than usual as families and their students, garbed in those iconic Oxford gowns, milled about the tiny city.


Settled in a little valley right at the start of the Thames river valley, Oxford straddles two small rivers, the Cherwell and the Isis, which flow together just outside of the city as the headwaters of the Thames before flowing east across southern England, through London, and straight to the Thames Estuary in the Channel. When one climbs the hillsides outside of Oxford and looks down into the valley on a foggy day, only the dozens and dozens of spires from all of the churches and chapels can be seen above the haze. Thus, as one poet put it, Oxford is truly the city of the “dreaming spires.”

One of the most important aspects of our time in Oxford was our visits to world-famous museums. We visited the Oxford Museum of Natural History, in a grand old building with vaulted iron-wrought ceilings, statues of famous scientists ringing the chambers, and columns all made of marble and granite from various locales all across England. Though the Museum has done a wonderful job maintaining its old antiquarian feel with rows upon rows of large glass cases stuffed full of artifacts and skeletons, the interpretation was modern and well done. The focus was on not only the science and natural history of SAM_3346 the objects, but on how they came to be in Oxford and more well-known stories, including the mummified skeletons of the last Dodo birds kept in captivity in Oxford before their extinction. These birds, overweight and clumsy due to their unnatural diet so far from the Indian Ocean, were seen by an Oxford academic and later incorporated, along with many other wonders of the museum, into stories he told to a young girl named Alice while punting little skiffs down the river.


In the back of the museum was my treat: The Pitt Rivers Collection of Anthropology and World Archaeology. Sir Pitt-Rivers was a famous antiquarian and widely travelled collector whose first, massive collection formed the basis of the museums accessions. The museum is well-known amongst archaeologists for its history as an early archaeological museum, its famous artifacts, and the fact that it still looks like an old antiquarian IMG_5749museum, with three floors of case upon case upon case of every object ever used across the a long history of the world. From shrunken heads to revolvers to flutes to cloaks to drums to every sort of body adornment imaginable, everything has either been recovered archaeologically or ‘borrowed’ ethnographically from living groups. Unlike modern museums, there are very few labels here, just a case that says “Pottery – North America” and rows and rows and rows of ceramics (in this case, sadly, most acquired from the American SAM_3361south-west, which is all I ever see when I see “North American pottery” in British museums).

We also spent a few hours in the Ashmolean, another famous Oxford museum of archaeology and art. One again, despite being an old museum (Britain’s first public museum, actually), the Ashmolean has done a lovely job modernizing their interpretation and had a lovely collection from across the world on display.

In addition, one of the draws to Oxford for me is the connection to such literary figures (aside from Lewis Carroll, alluded to above) as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien, among others, were in a little group known as the Inklings during the 1940s and 1950s. They’d meet a few times a week either at Lewis’ house or a pub known as the Eagle and Child to discuss SAM_3406 their thoughts and works, with Lewis even presenting early drafts of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the Inklings at the Eagle and Child one evening over a pint. Because of this, Tolkien’s allusion to the Eagle and Child in appendices to The Lord of the Rings as the “Bird and Baby” pub in the Shire, and my incurable nerd condition, we course had to pop in for a quick pint!

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