Rock/Body: A new research network

Rock Body

Photo courtesy of Isabel Pina Ferreira and Lizzy Burt

Dr João Florêncio explores questions raised as part of Rock/Body, an AHRC-funded project for which he is the Principal Investigator.

If asked about the similarities and possible continuities between the geologic world and the human body, most people will probably shrug and leave it at that, probably with a sense of disbelief on the value of the question just thrown at them: what would such disparate realms have in common? Why would one be interested in thinking together rocks—perceived as hard, static, dead, ever-lasting—and human bodies—seen as living, fleshy, organic, perishable, and capable of affects?

However, when paid closer look, geologic and human bodies begin to appear somewhat porous to one another. Think about calcium, for instance. Produced by the stars, it entered the composition of rocky planets like the Earth, where it became constituent part of sedimentary rocks. However, calcium is also very soluble in water and thus makes the jump into the animal food chain where it becomes a crucial element for the mineralisation of teeth and bones as well as some cellular processes. Without calcium—arriving from the stars to the rocks to the water to the food you eat–you wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone dare to walk.

Besides life’s dependence on minerals, geologic and human bodies have also been brought closer together thanks to two other events of a totally different kind (recent ones, if we consider them in relation to the wider history of the Earth). Those events—industrialisation and capitalism—unfolded through the exploitation, on the one hand, of geological resources such as coal and, on the other, human resources in the form of labour time. It was coal that powered James Watt’s steam engine; and it was human labour that extracted the coal to feed the industrial revolution. The burning out of rocks and bodies were essential for the accumulation of capital. And they keep on being so even today when our smartphones, tablets, and “cloud computing” interfaces—so cleanly conceived and designed they appear eons away from the smog and black lung of the industrial revolution—are still dependent on the mining of rare metals mostly taking place in developing countries and which are necessary to support the circuit boards, servers, and communication cables upon which our fetishised gadgets depend. Further, it is also often developing countries that are paid to import the e-waste produced when our smart machines reach their planned obsolescence and dispose of it. What do these stories tell about different kinds of human bodies and their relationships with metal and other geological resources at a time when one could be forgiven for thinking the world has freed itself from matter and become primarily quantified and understood in terms of data and Mbps (Megabytes per second)?

SingleRock_Colour_1000px

Image courtesy of Isabel Pina Ferreira and Lizzy Burt

As such, if we consider the porosity of the geologic and the human to one another, highlighted by millions of years of circulation and storage of minerals between rocks and living bodies and back again; and if we accept that both rocks and human bodies have a shared history of exploitation under capitalism, in what ways can these overlaps—these blurry areas where rock becomes (human) body becomes rock—open new pathways for collaborative research projects across disciplinary borders that have divided modern academia between sciences, humanities, and arts? What kinds of questions can a focus on these areas of ontological fuzziness bring about if the geologic and the human appear to no longer hold clearly defined boundaries separating the one from the other? And what can it do for the ways in which we make sense of ourselves and our place in the world at a time when the planet is changing so rapidly, environmentally, socially, politically?

In order to start probing these questions, Lancaster University’s Professor Nigel Clark and I have brought together a diverse group of scientists, humanities scholars, and artists under Rock/Body, an AHRC-funded research networking project. Departing from the belief that the scope and implications of the issues at hand cannot be safely contained within the traditional boundaries of a single discipline—or of various disciplines working without permeability to one another—the participants in the network have been meeting since April for a series of three research seminars where each researcher has been contributing their own thoughts on the interfacings of the geologic with the human body.

Organised around three sub-themes—Flesh/Minerality, Extraction/Exhaustion, and Time/Duration—the seminars bring together artists, curators, social scientists, earth scientists, and humanities scholars in order to start enacting much-needed cross-disciplinary dialogues and, from there, sketch future research partnerships.

The project will culminate at Exeter in September with an exhibition of artworks by participating artists and the presentations of a new site-specific performance piece conceived in response to the seminar discussions and the Exeter landscape.


FAT_6918_JoaoFlorencioDr Joao Florencio is a Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture. He holds a BA from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal, an MA with Distinction from the University of Greenwich, and a PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London.

An A-Z of reasons to do a POST fellowship

Sarah Foxen’s piece originally appeared on the NEWBROGUESANDBLISTERS Blog and is reposted with permission.

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Last year I did a POST fellowship. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Applications are now open for the next round of fellowships and I cannot recommend it highly enough; here is an A – Z of reasons why.

Assertiveness
You engage with all sorts of people during your fellowship; there’s no hiding in the corner. You find your voice and your assertiveness develops.

Balance
You see academic research from beyond the academy and that is really useful. Inside the academy, you only see half of the story. Engaging with research outside the institution balances your view of its place and function in our world.

Collaboration
A PhD can be quite a lonely experience. However, during your fellowship you (learn to) work collaboratively; with colleagues, fellows and others that you engage with.

Drive
You have a clearly defined task on your placement and a clearly defined goal. You also have a relatively short time to do it in. You need to work to a plan and you need to go for it. In so doing, you develop – and work with – a drive to achieve.

Expertise
You’ve been developing expertise in a particular field for some years now. Your placement puts you in contexts where you get to call upon the expertise you’ve worked so hard to develop.

Friends
You meet really nice, interesting, dynamic people, some of whom will become friends.

Giving
It’s not just about what you can get by doing a fellowship, but also what you can give. As a funded PhD student, several funding bodies have probably invested in your development over the years. By doing a fellowship and using those skills, you get to give back.

Helping
You will have developed a lot of skills and knowledge over the years. These may be unique to you. On your placement you can use your knowledge and skills to help colleagues and fellows.

Inspiration
In a completely different environment, meeting new people, going new places, doing new things, making new connections, inspiration strikes.

Job prospects
A fellowship looks great on your CV and provides you with fantastic experiences to recall in cover letters and interviews.

Knowledge
On your fellowship you research a topic in depth. In so doing, you gain a lot of knowledge in that area.

Learning
PhD students love to learn, but PhDs have us focusing our learning. Doing a fellowship, you learn lots of different things through the things you do and the people you meet. Some of the things you learn are really valuable and worth sharing.

Momentum
If a PhD is a marathon, then a fellowship is a 10k race. The pace is faster. You’ve only got three months to turn it around, and that means you’ve got to keep moving, which is really welcome when you’ve been creeping along at a snail’s pace with the PhD.

Network
During your fellowship, you engage with all sorts of different people; some you meet just once, others you liaise with repeatedly. They introduce you to others. Connecting with them on social media, you connect to others who are connected to them. You grow a fantastic network.

Opportunities
Opportunities come at you from left, right and centre. You will also be in a position to make your own opportunities. You must take hold of those opportunities and go for it.

Purpose
Sometimes we are disheartened by the thought that our esoteric thesis will be read by just a handful of people and is unlikely to change the world. The work you produce on your fellowship has purpose. It is widely read. It is useful. It feeds into parliamentary and policy debate. It is impactful.

Questioning
On your fellowship you scrutinise all kinds of documents and evidence. You become much more discerning and your default becomes to question things.

Reflection
When you’re in a different context, you see yourself from a different perspective. Your fellowship opens up a space for you to reflect on where you’re at and where you want to go next.

Space
Your fellowship gives you space and distance from your own research. It allows you to think about it differently and see it from a different perspective. When you return to it you are refreshed with new ideas of how to approach it.

Tales
Based in Westminster, interacting with all sorts of fascinating people, carrying out research of contemporary societal importance, you come away with great stories woven into your life tapestry.

Understanding
Working in Westminster, you gain a lot of understanding into how Parliament and Government work and how they interact with wider society.

Vision
Your fellowship allows you to see how academic research is made meaningful in the wider world. You see it through the eyes of parliamentarians, policy makers, charities, industry, journalists and others. You see it in a whole new light and that changes the way you do research.

Writing
During your fellowship, you write in a way you probably haven’t written before; you write about complicated things in a concise and accessible way. You learn a whole new useful way of writing.

eXpectation
The calibre of people you mix with on your fellowship is pretty high. People work hard, have high expectations and get things done. Being in that environment, those things rub off. You grow into that kind of a professional, and come away with those kinds of expectations.

Yolo
The idea of doing a fellowship might feel overwhelming: ‘I could never do that,’ you think. Well, you can. Your colleagues are supportive and helpful, and you will get there. Be brave, go for it, YOLO.

Zeal
The POST team and fellows are dynamic, motivated, quick, engaged, and on the ball. It’s an energetic and inspiring environment and it’s contagious.


Author’s Bio

Sarah Foxen is a postgraduate researcher in French Linguistics. Her research investigates the interactions between language and identity in the Franco-Belgian borderland. She is also interested in trends and developments in academia, and blogs about researcher skills, research and impact from the perspective of a junior academic.

The Medieval Somme: forgotten battle that was the bloodiest fought on British soil

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. It was written by James Clark, Professor of Medieval History.

Richard Caton Woodville’s The Battle of Towton.

A Battle of the Somme on British soil? It happened on Palm Sunday, 1461: a day of fierce fighting in the mud that felled a generation, leaving a longer litany of the dead than any other engagement in the islands’ history – reputed in some contemporary reports to be between 19,000 – the same number killed or missing in France on July 1 1916 – and a staggering 38,000.

The battle of Towton, fought near a tiny village standing on the old road between Leeds and York, on the brink of the North York Moors, is far less known than many other medieval clashes such as Hastings or Bosworth. Many will never have heard of it.

But here, in a blizzard on an icy cold March 29 1461, the forces of the warring factions of Lancaster and York met in a planned pitched battle that soon descended into a mayhem known as the Bloody Meadow. It ran into dusk, and through the fields and byways far from the battlefield. To the few on either side that carried their weapon to the day’s end, the result was by no means clear. But York in fact prevailed and within a month (almost to the day), the towering figure of Duke Edward, who stood nearly six-feet-five-inches tall, had reached London and seized the English crown as Edward IV. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, fled into exile.

Victor: the Yorkist Edward IV. The National Portrait Gallery

Towton was not merely a bloody moment in military history. It was also a turning-point in the long struggle for the throne between these two dynasties whose rivalry has provided – since the 16th century – a compelling overture to the grand opera of the Tudor legend, from Shakespeare to the White Queen. But this summer, as national attention focuses on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, we might also take the opportunity to recall a day in our history when total war tore up a landscape that was much closer to home.

An English Doomsday

First, the historian’s caveats. While we know a remarkable amount about this bloody day in Yorkshire more than 550 years ago, we do not have the benefits granted to historians of World War I. Towton left behind no battle plans, memoranda, maps, aerial photographs, nor – above all other in value – first-hand accounts of those who were there. We cannot be certain of the size of the forces on either side, nor of the numbers of their dead.

A death toll of 28,000 was reported as early as April 1461 in one of the circulating newssheets that were not uncommon in the 15th century – and was taken up by a number of the chroniclers writing in the months and years following. This was soon scaled up to nearly 40,000 – about 1% of England’s entire male population – by others, a figure which also came to be cemented in the accounts of some chroniclers.

This shift points to the absence of any authoritative recollection of the battle – but almost certainly the numbers were larger than were usually seen, even in the period’s biggest clashes. Recently, historians have curbed the claims but the latest estimate suggests that 40,000 men took to the field, and that casualties may have been closer to 10,000.

Lethal: an armour-piercing bodkin arrow, as used at Towton. by Boneshaker

But as with the Somme, it is not just the roll-call, or death-toll, that matters, but also the scar which the battle cut across the collective psychology. Towton became a byword for the horrors of the battlefield. Just as July 1 1916 has become the template for the cultural representation of the 1914-18 war, so Towton pressed itself into the popular image of war in the 15th and 16th centuries.

When Sir Thomas Malory re-imagined King Arthur for the rising generation of literate layfolk at the beginning of the Tudor age, it was at Towton – or at least a battlefield very much like it – that he set the final fight-to-the-death between Arthur and Mordred (Morte d’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 4). Writing less than ten years after the Yorkist victory, Malory’s Arthurian battleground raged, like Towton, from first light until evening, and laid waste a generation:

… and thus they fought all the long day, and never stinted till the noble knights were laid to the cold earth and ever they fought still till it was near night, and by that time there was there an hundred thousand laid dead upon the ground.

Lions and lambs

In his history plays, Shakespeare also presents Towton as an expression of all the terrible pain of the years of struggle that lasted over a century, from Richard II to Henry VIII. He describes it in Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5:

O piteous spectacle! O bloody times! While lions war and battle for their dens, poor harmless lambs abide their enmity. Weep, wretched man, I’ll aid thee tear for tear.

Both the Somme and Towton saw a generation fall. But while it was a young, volunteer army of “Pals” that was annihilated in 1916, osteo-analysis suggests that Towton was fought by grizzled older veterans. But in the small society of the 15th century, this was no less of a demographic shock. Most would have protected and provided for households. Their loss on such a scale would have been devastating for communities. And the slaughter went on and on. The Lancastrians were not only defeated, they were hunted down with a determination to see them, if not wiped out, then diminished to the point of no return.

Battle of Towton: initial deployment. by Jappalang, CC BY-SA

For its time, this was also warfare on an unprecedented scale. There was no be no surrender, no prisoners. The armies were strafed with vast volleys of arrows, and new and, in a certain sense, industrial technologies were deployed, just as they were at the Somme. Recent archaeology confirmed the presence of handguns on the battlefield, evidently devastating if not quite in the same league as the German’s Maschinengewehr 08 in 1916.

These firearm fragments are among the earliest known to have been in used in northern European warfare and perhaps the very first witnessed in England. Primitive in their casting, they presented as great a threat to the man that fired them as to their target. Surely these new arrivals would have added considerably to the horror.

Fragments of the past

Towton is a rare example in England of a site largely spared from major development, and vital clues to its violent past remain. In the past 20 years, archaeological excavations have not only extended our understanding of the events of that day but of medieval English society in general.

The same is true of the Somme. That battlefield has a global significance as a place of commemoration and reconciliation, especially as Word War I passes out of even secondhand memory. But it also has significance as a site for “live” research. Its ploughed fields and pastures are still offering up new discoveries which likewise can carry us back not only to the last moments of those lost regiments but also to the lost world they left behind them, of Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

It is essential that these battlefields continue to hold our attention. For not only do they deepen our understanding of the experience and mechanics of war, they can also broaden our understanding of the societies from which such terrible conflict springs.

Official World War I memorial rituals could create a generation uncritical of the conflict

This article first appeared on The Conversation. It was written by Catriona Pennell (Senior Lecturer in History, University of Exeter) and Mark Sheehan (Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Victoria University of Wellington)

French and British school children during a Somme Memorial in Thiepval. Yui Mok/PA wire

As commemorations to mark the centenary of the Battle of Somme begin, its clear that World War I retains a lingering and vivid presence in the countries which fought in it. But the unfolding centenary anniversaries can also be understood as a moment of heightened anxiety about the future of the way the war is remembered.

As we move further away from the original event itself, much state-sponsored centenary activity in the UK, Australia and New Zealand has actively targeted young people – singling them out as the “next generation”, charged with carrying the memory of what happened on the battlefield forward.


Children take part in a Somme memorial at Manchester Cathedral. Christopher Furlong/PA Wire

In these countries, the memory of World War I has been sanctified to such an extent that other perspectives beyond a sense of respect for those who were directly affected by the conflict is often overlooked.

In the UK, young people are taking centre stage in all the major government-funded commemorative activities, the cornerstone of which is the £5.3m Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, which aims to take 12,000 secondary state school pupils from England to the memorials on the western front between 2014 and 2019 as part of a national education initiative.

Revered status

Such investment, in a time of economic austerity, requires scrutiny, particularly regarding what ideas about the conflict are emphasised and at the expense of which alternatives. For example, whether children are being asked to reflect on civilians, pacifists or survivors – rather than solely the military dead – or to explore Britain’s uncomfortable relationship to its imperial past.

One secondary school pupil, who took part in a trip to World War I battlefields in spring 2015, told us how she might respond to a member of her coach party who felt remembering the war glorified conflict. She said:

I just really disagree with that viewpoint … it’s like walking into a church and you know saying that you love the devil and you hate God and everything. It’s not appropriate … the tour was to remember and to learn about that you know not many people there are going to put their hands up and agree with you because that’s not the purpose of going.

Much of the UK government’s commemorative activities involving young people are semi-religious, reverential and ritualistic. This risks closing down the opportunity for students to question the purpose of the war, to explore notions of the war’s futility in the light of the outbreak of the World War II, or to consider which narratives of the war are being commemorated at the expense of others.

Anzac identity

In Australia and New Zealand, war remembrance is closely aligned with an Anzac identity. Purported to have emerged at Gallipoli in 1915, this ideal is framed around so-called “common values” of “mateship, courage, equality, self-sacrifice, duty and loyalty”. It is central to museum education programmes that continue to attract thousands of school visitors.

At this year’s Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, director Brendan Nelson addressed “young Australians” directly: “Your search for belonging, meaning and values for the world you want – ends here.”

Australia’s and New Zealand’s commemorative activities also share many of the core elements of British commemoration, for example the exhortation of Laurence Binyon’s ode “we will remember them” is used at Anzac Day dawn services. At the heart of all three national cultures of remembrance is a sense of unquestioning reverence for those who served.


Anzac Day in Sydney. European Press Association

In New Zealand, all schools participated in the Ministry of Education’s Fields of Remembrance project. This saw 80,000 white crosses with the names of local service personal who had died overseas hand delivered to schools and laid in the school grounds, where along with poppies and posters they became the focus of war commemorations.

In Australia, pride has been used to encourage young people to connect with their country’s World War I history. Teenage duo The Berrys won the 2016 ACT Premier’s Anzac Spirit Prize with Proud, a song that thanks a dying Australian soldier and his mates for “a legend to be proud of”.

Amid these official celebrations, there appears to be little space for different perspectives on war remembrance in the UK, Australia and New Zealand that go beyond pride and reverence of the armed forces, are inclusive of difference and allow young people to think critically about the significance of World War I. But if we are serious about the memories of the conflict surviving in all their diversity, we need to equip and encourage young people to engage critically as well as emotionally with this cataclysmic event, and with what it might say to us in the 21st century.

The authors would like to thank to Christina Spittel, lecturer in the school of humanities and social sciences, University of New South Wales, Canberra for help with the Australian examples.