Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Searching for palaeoecological clues to the rise and fall of the Maltese Temple Culture

by Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

Now, I've done my fair share of the type of fieldwork that Karen recently blogged about here. I've spent long, miserable days with my wellies full of cold, smelly bog water, being tormented by seemingly thousands of midges trapped on the inside of my midge veil. There were actually quite a few sunny days on many of my previous field trips, but in most of the places I worked sudden changes of weather frequently occur, meaning that waterproofs and fleeces could never be left behind. So when I was offered a job as a research fellow on the FRAGSUS project at Queen's University Belfast, I was very excited - not only was it a really interesting project based in a great department, I would get to do fieldwork in Malta. Sunshine! Warmth! No more lugging around a ridiculously heavy rucksack stuffed full of clothing to cover all eventualities of cold/wet/wind/sun/hail/snow/hurricane (perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Fieldwork of the cold, soggy variety in Orkney: cleaning a peat section prior to sampling, and coring at another site

FRAGSUS (Fragility and Sustainability in Restricted Island Environments: Adaptation, Culture Change and Collapse in Prehistory) is a multidisciplinary research project funded by the European Research Council. The project involves archaeologists, palaeoecologists, geoarchaeologists and numerous other specialists, and aims to explore the relationships between changing environments, natural resources and the rise of complex human social systems. We hope to be able to understand more about how and why people invested in the construction of substantial monuments, such as the UNESCO World Heritage status Maltese Temples, in what was presumably a relatively resource-poor, small island environment. It is also hoped that the project will provide insights into the processes, be they socio-economic, environmental, or a combination of factors, that ultimately led to the collapse of the Temple Culture at around 2500 BC.

The Neolithic temples of Ggantija and Mnajdra

My role, working with other palaeoenvironmental specialists, is to reconstruct the past vegetation of the islands via pollen analysis, and to search for evidence of past environmental change and human impact on the environment throughout prehistory. This will be a challenge - pollen is generally best preserved in acidic, wet environments such as peat bogs (hence the reason for all the wet, muddy fieldwork) - and being situated in the Mediterranean and composed almost entirely of limestone, Malta is very dry and alkaline. However, previous work has shown that pollen does survive in Maltese sediments and, more importantly, that the assemblages recovered can be interpretable. I will need to make some adjustments to the methods that I use to process the samples in order to maximise recovery of pollen from them, and I'll need to get used to identifying degraded grains that have not been preserved under optimum conditions. There are also a few new taxa to learn, so I'm looking forward to it!

Several sediment cores had already been recovered by my colleagues before I began work on the project, so my trip to Malta in June this year didn't involve any coring. I had two tasks while I was there. Firstly, I needed to collect samples from various archaeological contexts at the Neolithic settlement site of Tac-Cawla on Gozo, where the archaeological team have been excavating for the last four months. Archaeological pollen samples can often give insights into the ways in which structures were used, and into the range of economic activities that were carried out, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into those when they arrive back in Belfast at the end of July.

The second aspect of my work in Malta involved collecting modern pollen assemblages in order to aid interpretation of the subfossil assemblages contained within the sediment cores. This was tricky for a number of reasons - firstly, where to sample?! Although it is thought that large areas of Malta were probably once covered with Mediterranean sclerophyllous forest, characterised by Holm Oak and Aleppo Pine, it is doubtful whether any of this remains. Agriculture accounts for 51% of the land area of the Maltese Islands, with urban areas making up a further 22%. The remaining area is made up of small patches of semi-natural vegetation such as maquis, garrigue, and steppe (see here for descriptions of these habitats). Despite the lack of woodland, I still needed to sample these other habitats as they presumably would also have been present in the past. Large enough patches were often difficult to locate, and were usually to be found in remote areas that had somehow escaped cultivation.

Garrigue vegetation with typical agricultural terraces in the background

The second problem to overcome was what to sample as the pollen trap. There are traps specifically designed for the purpose of sampling the modern pollen rain ('Tauber traps'; essentially plastic containers sunk into the ground so that the top is at ground level, with a hole in the lid to allow the pollen rain to be collected). Since there can be large variations in pollen production from year to year due to variations in seasonal temperature and precipitation, at least ten years' worth of data from these traps is required in order to provide an average, and I will only be working on this project for two years. To get around this problem, most researchers doing this type of work in northern Europe would sample a moss polster as these tend to preserve the last few years' worth of pollen rain, but unsurprisingly mosses are not particularly abundant in Malta! I had to sample the top few millimetres of soil (and even soil was hard to come by at some sites) - not ideal from a pollen preservation perspective, but pollen has been known to turn up in some surprising places, so fingers crossed that it will do in this case!

I soon discovered that my dreams of ditching the heavy rucksack were just that - in the intense heat of the Maltese summer, the amount of water that I had to carry with me more than accounted for the weight I'd got rid of by discarding all the cold and wet weather field gear! I had to adjust my fieldwork schedule to cope with the heat - normally I'd get out into the field relatively early, have a brief stop to eat a packed lunch, and then carry on until the work was finished and be 'home' for tea at a reasonably early hour. In Malta I'd be on my way by 7am and work until the heat became unbearable, then take myself and my helpers off for a long lunch and cold drinks in the shade somewhere (one of the advantages of working on small islands is that you're never far from a cafe!) before heading back out for a few hours in the late afternoon/evening. Luckily though, views like the one below and snacks of pastizzi (small pasties containing either cheese or peas, sadly not both together or the temptation to link to a certain Fast Show sketch would be too much) more than made up for any discomfort!

In spite of the challenges and adverse weather conditions, I generally consider fieldwork to be the best part of my job. It usually takes me about a week to recover from a trip and forget about all the problems, and now that I've been back in the lab/office for a couple of weeks, I often find myself wishing I was out in the field again. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks in the field can generate enough lab work and data analysis to keep me going for a year or more, so fieldwork isn't something I get to do an awful lot of! So for now, it's off to the lab to process all the samples I collected, then I'll be spending weeks at the microscope counting several thousand pollen grains...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FoodCloud goes ‘Botton’s up’

By Deborah Butler & app; DE:FT (@deftfood)

My blog is a further update on the DE:FT research project ( which is investigating whether digital tools such as apps can be used as a way of promoting more sustainable production and consumption through reconnecting consumers and producers, but we need to know more about best to involve diverse users, what information they might need and in what form and how to promote new technologies in the face of information overload and increasing public distrust.  In order to try and achieve this we have created three prototype apps,  FoodCrowd, ShopStamp,and FoodCloud and are in the process of testing FoodCrowd in schools and the other two apps on farms and in the countryside.

Last week I had the opportunity to try the FoodCloud app out on a ‘Food Trail’ courtesy of Sue and Aiden Nelson, the joint brains behind Yorkshire Food Finder ( We have customised Food Cloud so it can be used to provide a background description of some of the different places that trails go to.  Let me explain further.

Sue and Aidan have devised a series of themed culinary trails linking Yorkshire food producers and Yorkshire restaurants.  Participants on the Food Trail get the opportunity to experience at first hand how some of Yorkshire's quality foods are created, bred or grown which can then be sampled on specially themed menus at some of the best eating places in the county.  So, you may ask, where does FoodCloud come in? I must admit, when I was at The Star, Harome eating my twice baked Yorkshire Tome cheese souffl√© or sipping a half pint of the Great Yorkshire brewery’s best porter in the New Inn, Pickering, I was half thinking the same. 
One of the objectives of the Food Trail is having the opportunity to learn something about the environment and cultural history of the locations the trail passes through.  At the moment this is delivered courtesy of a very informative commentary given by Aiden as we passed various places and points of interest, and this is where the FoodCloud app could be used to great advantage in adding to the information available. 
Initially FoodCloud was created to work when out on a farm walk for instance.  In order for the app to work successfully, however, the farmer needs to have created data about the farm and the crops being grown, adding information into what we call the ‘back end’ of the app.  The data inputting process is quite straightforward as we wanted a data base (the back end) which was simple and easy to use where the data added is displayed once the app is activated and opened up (the front end).  Although the Food Trail is not a walk, Sue and Aidan were able to input data about some of the key places on the food trail in the same way descriptive data could be added about a crop, which was then visible when the front end of the app was opened up. The following section describes how this worked in practice
‘Botton’s up’ Food Trail
The trail started off at The Star, Harome (, worth a visit just to look at the amazing private dining room with its painted gabled ceiling.  The app gave a brief description of the pub and what was available there which Andrew Pern, the proprietor of The Star could then elaborate on in more detail.  From The Star we drove up onto the North York Moors, passing through managed moorland, black face sheep and the occasional red legged partridge.  It was my first ever visit onto the moors and I was blown away by the vast expanse and the brown, green and purple hues of the landscape, before negotiating a precipitous descent down to Botton and the Camphill Trust Community (  The Camphill Community at Botton is one of nine rural and urban communities run by the Camphill Trust, a long established UK charity supporting adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other needs, supporting people in their home life, work, social and cultural activities.  The Botton centre is a rural community made up of five farms, two of which are dairy farms which supply the milk for the Botton creamery which we were lucky enough to be given a tour of by their resident cheese maker, Alistair.  We even got to taste some of the delicious hard and soft cheeses made and aged on site which can also be bought at the creamery shop and which complement some of the dishes prepared at The Star.  Next stop after lunch was a tour of The Great Yorkshire Brewery, a micro brewery located in the garden of the New Inn, Pickering, where their beer can be sampled and is on tap at The Star.  One of the brewery’s largest markets at the moment though is Japan, to where beer is shipped in kegs to be consumed by discerning Japanese beer drinkers.
Last but by no means least the trail ended at The Star where Andrew Pern gave us a guided tour of the pub, the guest rooms and the kitchens explaining how he had built the success of the pub on being able to source and use local Yorkshire produce which together with his culinary expertise had given The Star its award winning status.
Future developments.
Whilst the version of FoodCloud I took on the trail was designed more for farm walks rather than longer linear trails there is great potential to create a bespoke version of app drawing on our fieldwork ‘in the wild’ plus a little computer re-programming. In this way FoodCloud can enhance established connections between producers and consumers and help showcase the cornucopian foodscape of Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How I became a historical geographer

By Briony McDonagh (@BrionyMcDonagh
Hi all! This is the latest blog in our series about how we came to do what we do. My name's Briony and I'm a lecturer in human geography here at GEES in Hull. My research interests lie in historical and cultural geography, and I’m particularly interested in how issues of power, space, identity and gender have been played out in the British landscape over the last 1000 years.

Like many of my colleagues I certainly didn't know I wanted to be an academic as a child, but I did like old and ruined buildings, Time Team and trying to figure out why the landscape looked like it did. My friends and I spent considerable amounts of time exploring an abandoned group of farm buildings not far from school (below), which it later turned out were 16th century in date and built from the ruins of a medieval monastery. For some reason I've long ago forgotten, I chose not to take History at GCSE, but ended up taking  a combination of A-level subjects which included both Geography and Classics. I applied for degree courses in a range of subjects but finally settled on a BA hons in Geography at University of Nottingham with the intention of applying for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when I left.

Haltemprice Priory Farm © Mr Gareth Parry LRPS
That didn't happen, of course, principally because I got bitten by the research bug. I took second year courses which included classes on ancient woodlands, urban histories and the mappa mundi and third year modules which involved fieldwork on Italian environmental histories and the urban plan of Revolutionary Paris, along with archival work in the University of Nottingham's Manuscripts and Special Collections. I was hooked. I chose to stay at Nottingham to complete a Masters in Landscape and Culture – which included training in standing buildings and landscape archaeology – followed by 3 years writing a PhD on the historical geographies of the Yorkshire Wolds before c. 1600. It was during this time I developed my current interdisciplinary approach to the landscape combining documentary research, maps, landscape archaeology and theoretical perspectives drawn from cultural geography and elsewhere.
The day I submitted by PhD I was offered a job with the Victoria County History contributing to a volume on the history of Howden and the surrounding region. I did this for 7 months before securing a longer-term post-doctoral position working on an AHRC-funded project researching the long-term impacts of parliamentary enclosure on the landscapes and communities of Northamptonshire (you can find out more about the project here). As part of my post, I also taught in the History department at the University of Hertfordshire, teaching a second year social history course and a third year module on the history of the English landscape, something I absolutely loved doing. Whilst working through endless boxes of archival materials at the Northamptonshire Record Office I came across Elizabeth Prowse, a committed agricultural improver who radically remodelled her estate during her 43-year widowhood (for more on Prowse, see my chapter on her here). It was as a result of researching and writing about Prowse that I began to wonder about the contribution made by other elite women to managing and improving landed estates in Georgian England. We know many male landowners pushed forward enclosure and introduced agricultural improvements on their estates, but we know almost nothing about the part female landowners played in the changes which transformed the English landscape in the century after about 1730. Women certainly owned property as widows and heiresses and sometimes even wives, but how involved were they in its management and improvement?

Wicken House (Northamptonshire), the home of Elizabeth Prowse
These are the questions that my current research project sets out to answer. Whilst still working as a post-doc in 2009, I secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for the project which I then undertook at the University of Nottingham between 2010 and 2014 (the end date for the project was twice extended as a result of the arrival of two little people in my life). Running my own project was a great experience and I later managed to secure additional funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to write a book from the project. I transferred this grant to the University of Hull when I took up my post here in early 2014, and I’m now about halfway through writing up the book (to be published by Ashgate, hopefully in 2015).
So after almost 7 years of post-doctoral and fixed term posts, I finally have a permanent job. I have to admit that when I was completing my PhD, I never imagined I would spend quite so many years in post-doctoral positions. But those 7 years have given me the real luxury of being able to conduct a huge amount of research on a wide range of topics. In addition to my book on elite women, I'm currently working on projects on late medieval popular geographical imaginations, early modern anti-enclosure protest (see, for example, and the land rights movement in the 21st century (you can listen to me talk about the latter project here). I'm hoping having got all this research under my belt will stand me in good stead in my new job given all the demands on my time that a larger teaching role and increased departmental administration are likely to bring. All in, I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me busy for the next 7 years! 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

#madwriting in the real world – write-ins and writing workshops.

By Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

One of my favourite Twitter things is the #madwriting hashtag. Got 45 minutes you want to dedicate to some paper writing? Tweet it, set goals, get some allies and then dedicate 45 minutes to uninterrupted writing. Get that abstract written, that paper started or even do some #madediting and get a manuscript ready for submission. Our ever increasing workloads mean that writing up our research for publication gets shunted for delivering lectures, designing lab practicals, endless admin tasks, long, drawn out meetings and often, even more meetings. Yet, publishing papers remains one of the most important outputs of our work – grant money aside, it’s what academics are most judged on. #madwriting helps find some time to get some writing done.
Recently, I’ve been involved in some real-life #madwriting sessions. I’ve been to THE GEES Network Writing Workshop and a GEESology Writing Group Write-In. Ultimately about academic writing, both had different aims and both were successful. 

THE GEES Network is a network that I got involved in when I was working as a Teaching Fellow. It is a support network for teaching-focussed academics (either those on teaching-only contracts, or those who identify as teaching-focussed). The recent workshop was part of a two-day professional development event where I was talking about taking the step from teaching fellow to getting a teaching & research lectureship. The writing workshop aimed to get together some people who were writing papers on pedagogy in GEES, or themes around teaching in Higher Education. Before the workshop participants expressed an interest in a theme and then joined up with other participants who wanted to write on the same theme and put a draft paper together. Some were already working together, others forged new collaborations. It was particularly aimed at helping those who were publishing in this field for the first time. We read each other’s drafts (in vastly different states of completion, but that didn’t matter), discussed possible destinations, research methods and how to present our data. This was particularly useful for those of us used to discipline-specific publishing.
The GEESology Writing Group Write-In is completely different. This is more like a real-life #madwriting session. We’ve done two write-ins now – one was a full day write-in and one was a half day. What we do is book a room OUTSIDE of our department. We don’t go far, just to the Student Union building who have some nice rooms with decent views across campus. We gather together and set our goals for the day. Some people need to start papers, others need to get them ready for submission, others need to write grant proposals. Goals are normally a word count, or a page count, or a section. We then get going on a set period of time of uninterrupted, no talking, no email checking, non-distracted writing. Normally we do 45 minutes, or an hour. Then, we take a short break (15 mins), review how it’s going, maybe grab a coffee or eat some of the goodies that some good soul has normally baked for us (thanks Jane!). Its important here to celebrate achievements,  no matter how small.
Then repeat. Then repeat again, and continue repeating for however long we have. At the end of the day, goals are reviewed and stickers given out to the successful. Reflecting on what we’ve achieved is motivating and helps the momentum spill out into the rest of our day or week. We find that getting a good, quiet, airy room away from our department with access to coffee works best. Going somewhere specifically TO WRITE certainly helps concentrate the mind. Sticking to the blocks of time and making sure everyone has a break after each block prevents writing burn out and helps make writing enjoyable. It also helps to celebrate those small goals – each paragraph contributes to an eventual paper!
I have found both of these workshops really useful. One actively used the group to help discuss our manuscripts and improve our papers. The other used the group for support and motivation. Both achieved their aims equally well and I’d recommend either approach though I think that the writing workshop is most suitable for research groups. The GEESology write-ins have proved so popular that we’re planning on running half-days weekly through the summer....we’d better get baking!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Journey to Social and Cultural Geography

By Dr Suzanne Beech (@suzanneebeech)

Hi everyone! I am Suzanne and I joined GEES in October last year. Being a geographer is very much in my
Walking the South Downs Way in the Snow (April 2013)
blood. My mum has been a geography teacher since the 1970s and I not only followed in her footsteps in terms of choosing to study geography but by going to the same university as she did, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and even being taught by some of the same academic staff as well. I loved reminding my PhD supervisor, Prof Steve Royle, that he had also taught my mum when he first arrived in Belfast. That is (sadly?) where the similarities end. My mum would definitely consider herself a physical geographer, whereas I would very much describe myself as a social and cultural geographer – people are my business, in particular international student mobility has been the focus of my career to date. So, how exactly did I end up in Hull, and when did I realise that being involved in research and teaching was the job for me?
The Lanyon Building at QUB - a typical 'QUB Postcard' Image
I went to QUB straight after school – admittedly I was not sure about this at first. Queen’s had been my second choice, I did not think I would actually end up going there, but my Biology A-Level did not go quite as well as perhaps it should have done. Consequently I went determined not to enjoy myself. This is something I really laugh about now given that I ended up spending over eight really happy years there. Back then doing a PhD was not really something that was on my radar (I was convinced that I was supposed to be a primary school teacher for quite a long time). Research did seem, though, like something that would be a really rewarding thing to do, and I really looked up to all of the PhD students who often helped with teaching in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology (GAP), but they all seemed so intelligent and clever and all a little bit out of my league. You could perhaps say that research is something that has always been at the back of my mind, but was definitely not something that was set in stone.

My attitude changed completely during the third year of my undergraduate study. I was enrolled on a four year degree programme that included a year spent overseas in Spain on the Erasmus scheme and in September 2007 I moved to Madrid where I studied at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM). This was a bit of a shock to the system in a number of ways: first, I had never actually lived away from home before; second, at the time the population of Madrid was about twice that of Northern Ireland and I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people; third, my Spanish was nowhere near as good as I thought it was when I left home and therefore studying Geography in Spain in Spanish was a bit of a challenge for the first three months or so. I recall going on a fieldtrip to Extremadura in the West of Spain on the Portuguese border shortly after I had arrived where I spent a weekend in blissful ignorance, with no idea where exactly we were, what we were doing, or what the point of the whole expedition was. I came to realise that fieldtrips were a common feature of the Spanish higher education system, in Geography at least, and every few weeks it seemed we were off doing something in the field whether for a day or a weekend.

Selected Fieldtrips in Spain
Clockwise from top left: The Extremadura landscape, a lighthouse in Galicia, the Old Town in Toledo, the castle at Segovia
My year in Madrid was one that changed me in so many ways. By the time I left at the end of June I had matured massively, spoke Spanish pretty fluently (sadly while my Spanish is still good, I am definitely no longer fluent) but more importantly gained a huge understanding into what it means to be an international student. This included the cultural and social implications of being in a totally different country, the financial costs (Erasmus is funded, but it can still be quite an expensive venture) and also the emotional costs of being away from home. I had, therefore, gained all of this first-hand experience, but I also decided to do my dissertation research into student exchange programmes when I was there. When I was writing it up I became absolutely certain that this was something that was very much for me. The student mobilities literature was exciting, dynamic and really stimulating, and I felt like what I was doing was actually making a difference. My supervisor must have seen something in me as well, because he suggested turning it into a larger PhD project. I could not believe it when I actually managed to secure myself a studentship at Queen’s – at that point I really felt like I had made it (I did not realise just how much more there was left to do!).

Prof Steve Royle - a good likeness
I began my PhD in September 2009, just after I had finished my BSc and spent the next three and a bit years researching and writing up my findings into the motivations and influences for international student mobility to the UK, under the supervision of Prof Steve Royle. It was the most fantastic experience and I loved spending my time with lots of international students, from all manner of backgrounds and nationalities and hearing their stories of how they found themselves to be studying in the UK. Learning about their decision making and how geography and place were critical to this process was an exciting time – albeit one that was filled with blood, sweat and tears. People are always putting pictures of their babies on social media – I posted a picture of my thesis, it is my baby.

Students waving field notebooks at me in Amberley Working
Museum, West Sussex
Doing a PhD is a really unusual time. I loved it, but it drove me a little mad sometimes as well. I also knew that deciding to stay in academia would not necessarily be an easy option. However, I had really enjoyed the research and all the things that go with it (like conferences and meeting proper famous geographers), and I had loved all of the teaching opportunities as well, particularly teaching in the field. I applied for several jobs and worked in Queen’s for a few months on the School of GAP’s Athena Swan bid (an initiative which recognises moves towards greater gender equality in academia). I was also offered a post in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which I turned down because I had a feeling that something better was just around the corner – some people thought I was a little crazy given that I had been trying hard to get a job. This included my friend and office-mate Catherine who tried to convince me otherwise but to no avail. I was certain that something else was coming, and literally a few weeks later I was offered my job in GEES. The last eight months have been amazing and I have no regrets whatsoever (although I do get homesick sometimes). Things have been a real whirlwind, I have taught my own research-led module on transnationalism and have had my first paper published in Area. I cannot wait to see what the next year at Hull has to offer me, and I am really excited to see what happens thereafter!