“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I am not”

Whilst I was busy building my replica bronze age boat in the spring I heard of a very interesting conference at the British Museum.

Craft and People
Agents of Skilled Labour in the Archaeological Record

Good title and the full details with the call for papers sounded right up my street. It takes place at the BM on 1st and 2nd November.

The conference flyer said “academic approaches to craft are often far removed from the practical knowledge and embodied practice of craft and skill in ancient societies, and biases towards ‘head’ over ‘hands’ need to be critically evaluated and acknowledged in the study of craft production.”

Yes I thought, perfect for a paper from a working craftsman having spent 16 years making replicas of medieval artifacts and 3 months replicating one of the most technologically advanced surviving bronze age artifacts.

I pitched my abstract using the title “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I am not” but sadly was not accepted, they had 120 submissions for 40 or so slots but I feel it is rather sad they did not find a single place for a working craftsperson.  To me this is symptomatic of a society which does not recognise that craftspeople are intelligent and capable of engaging with, even contributing to serious academic debate. 

I was rather looking forward to engaging, I would have opened with the title “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I am not”and asked who recognised it. I doubt if many folk at the conference would yet it is the title of the UKs fastest ever selling album, the debut album of the Arctic Monkeys. There is nothing wrong with folk not being up to date with knowledge outside their particular field but I would argue that the world of craft is as distant, complex and hard to understand for an archaeological academic as the world of pop music. How frustrating to see so many folk discussing craft from so many different angles without a single craftsperson present.

In the world of archaeology it is common for academics to dabble in craft, to undertake a few small reconstructions and write about their experiences. I would suggest this can give good insights, as working for a day or two with archaeologists gives me an insight into their world. We the craftspeople however have an incredibly deep knowledge of our work, the materials and techniques and how they respond. This is based on thousands of repetitions each of which is a learning experience. The craftsperson is an intelligent problem solver bringing all this knowledge to each new challenge each day. There is knowledge and intelligence in our hands and our heads we simply choose to express it three dimensionally and seemingly in today’s society that is not yet as easily recognised as words, we need to change that.

9 Responses to “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I am not”

  1. Clive McGoun October 27, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    The decision not to include working craftspeople speaks volumes about the ways in which research and the 'objects'(i.e. subjects) of that research are set up currently in academia. Given the editorial bias, maybe you'll miss out less than you expected in not presenting. But now that you've given us a taster with the title and opener, why not drip feed the rest of your planned paper on the blog? I'd be fascinated to see how you develop the argument and I'm sure you'd generate some really interesting and useful discussion.

  2. Robin Wood October 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I didn't develop the paper Clive just did the abstact which is this "Trying to understand craftspeople today is as difficult as trying to understand archaeologists or academics, trying to understand craftspeople 50, 500, or 5000 years ago is even more problematic.The author will draw on his own profession of turning wooden bowls on a foot powered lathe and his extensive research of archaeological, documentary and ethnographic evidence to raise questions about the role of the woodturner in medieval society.Drawing on experience from working with traditional woodworkers in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Norway and his own teaching of craft skills the author will discuss various ways in which tacit knowledge is transferred.Finally drawing on a variety of evidence and experience the author will propose an image of the craftsman as intelegent problem solver."It is parked for future development but have other things to concentrate on at the moment. They did ask me last minute to run a workshop but by then I had other commitments.

  3. handmadeinwood October 27, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    .Reading the preamble several times… (it took that long to work out what they were saying), it seems that the whole thing was for academics by academics.I may be wrong, (and with great respect to academics everywhere), your approach to work is, thankfully, not academic.All best from Wales

  4. Kev Alviti October 28, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    I think that maybe once someone has worked with their hands and had to earn a living from them they being to see the world a little differently. Until they are willing to do this it's all academic.

  5. Rick McKee October 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Thanks for putting this out there, Robin. Our work with archaeologists on this side of the pond has been productive and mutually beneficial. But I wonder if that is the exception in academia.

  6. ossamenta October 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Your abstract sounded very interesting, and it's a pity they didn't accept it. There are indeed very few people in archaeology with extensive craft experience. I met one of them, Swedish potterer Katarina Botwid, at the 2012 EAA conference and she mentioned that she has difficulties getting the more theoretically inclined archaeologists to fully understand the concept of the intuitive knowledge that comes with years and years of experience. I'm going to the conference, trying to get some ideas for theoretical approaches to my Ph.D. research proposal. Unfortunately I'm really into practical stuff and methodology, whereas the academic world loves thinking about theory. There will probably be a blog post of the interesting talks.

  7. Robin Wood October 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    Thanks for all the input and I hope I don't sound too negative. I feel craftspeople tend to have tremendous depth of knowledge and that the overlap with archaeology, art and museum collection studies is tremendously rich. I do write academic papers and have worked alongside archaeologists for many years including writing up all the turned woodware from the Mary Rose for example. What bothers me is that I feel the relationship is not always seen as a meeting of equals. In Scandinavia I have met archaeologists that are also highly competent craftspeople and craftspeople that are taken very seriously within the archaeological community, less so over here.

  8. Tim October 30, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    Funny, I nearly emailed you the conference details, but thought you would already know of and be involved. It is a pity your paper was not accepted as I think it would have been very interesting, incisive, and exactly what the conference was aimed at. Speaking as an archaeologist with some considerable experience in conferences, it can be a real pain getting things accepted, especially ones that are over-subscribed. Shame, but persevere with it, as it sounds interesting. I have to say I am a little disappointed in some of the negative comments re: academia. We are not all stuffy professors with no grounding in reality (I financed my PhD, in early bronze age pottery, by working as a removal man), and actually the subject of your paper is exactly where theoretical archaeology is currently focusing much research. As both a wood carver and an archaeologist, keep up the excellent work.

  9. Paul O'Toole December 23, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I had a chat to a Roman re-enactor once, and he was saying how he had pointed out to a Museum that they had labeled up certain items wrong.He might not know the whole history but when it came to the medical stuff he used he was an expert.I think that the problem a lot of the time, especialy in the lets build something programs. Anyone who has ever done diy and then seen a proffesinal do the same task knows that there is a world of difference between how you think something is done, and how it is really done.