Monday, September 14, 2009

archaeology: the fish remembers

I looked forward to collazione, having grown quite fond of marmalade,
and those morning hours in the Stratographic Museum seemed, for some reason, to stretch on endlessly. 
By half ten, I would suddenly find myself thinking of marmalade, and. 

oh look, half ten, time for collazzo.

 Setting down the pen and  pencils on my table in the central courtyard of the shed-like structure  optimistically called the "strat mus",  I would  stand, push in my chair.
The big round stone on my table which had once been used perhaps 1500 years ago to grind grain,  I placed upon my papers to hold them still, hoping no fat bumblebee would shit on the uppermost page with a small citrus-coloured splat.

The lemon blossoms sent curls of fragrance into the air.

By half ten it was hot. The goat, as always, was atop the chuck-pile looking for the weeds that seemed always to grow through it. I went crunching through the mound of potsherds, some of which I secretly pocketed: bowls and cups with no chance of being reassembled, even in a drawing. I crunched past the goat, along the track, over to the long table set up beneath the bougainvillea. Last to the table.

Beneath my feet, early in the season before the heat crisped everything to brown, Camomile flowered.

I was the only Australian, the only one without a degree in Archaeology, Classics, Ancient Greek or even History. The only one who didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge, except for Vassos and Nicoletta, who went first to the Universities of Roma and Athens for their undergraduate degrees. The Head of this outpost declared once, at collazzo in fact, as I had just taken a large bite of marmalade on bread, that he had spent three years as a child in Townsville with his Airforce father.
Imagine, he said incredulously, me with an Australian accent!

I hadn't thought of myself as having much of an accent as I was considered quite well-spoken at home. As a child people used to ask my mother where I had taken elocution lessons, and she would beam.
During these years,  among  the English, among those to whom I had to speak other languages, I came to have little accent at all. I came to adopt the cadence one might use when explaining things to the very young, or very stupid. Still, if I was last to the table at Knossos, I would catch the tail end of David doing his best at an Australian accent. 
No,  David, I would say, you've still got it wrong.

One morning, finding a new face at the table, I asked 

What is your research area?

wondering if I would have more work, a new thesis to illustrate, a new drawer opened over in the strat mus.
The newcomer, James,  looked me up and down, adjusting his glasses, frowning lightly as he did.
Social stratification in the Iron Age.
he answered. 
I laughed, since he embodied the notion of social stratification itself. 
I was not sure which artefacts were  Iron Age, or if he would request some drawings.

Weeks later, crammed into a mini and sitting on James' lap with my legs out the window, I laughed at the stratification of bodies in the car as we tore down the hill to Iraklion. (Ha, ha, I'm on top)

So, James, I asked,
thinking that one must need a certain amount of passion to sustain onesself through the dark nights of research, reading, sifting through dirt encrusted fragments.
You must be passionate about that then?
James made a noise, then answered: 
Passion? I don't think passion enters into it, he said.  
and what is passion anyway?

I thought to myself how it was only ever passion that led me to do anything, but I kept quiet.
Later when Jean came, I spent hours in awe, watching her and James fighting. 
Like me, she occupied marginal space  because she was from Bristol University, had a degree in Fine Art, and was a communist. 
Oh, those fights were wonderful.
 Katie and Phillippa arrived, the Environmental Archaeologists. Katie was a sharp tongued Irishwoman, blond, blue eyed and fierce. They evened things up a bit, though I was clearly at the very bottom of any social stratification, that was evident, and certainly unfit to debate with such a scholar, so I kept my mouth tight shut.
Although I was glad of Katie and Philippa, I often had to hide from them, lest they ask for my help, which often involved searching through trays of dirt for carbonised seeds, so they could identify extinct species of plant
Oh, sorry, I would say, after my third tedious stint, I have to be getting on with the Larnaki for Nicolas.

minoan fresco fragments

I adored him. 
Dr Nicolas Coldstream. 
My favourite, my friend.

He took me into the darkened corner of the Strat Mus in the screaming heat, with cicadas blaring outside, and slid open the deep drawer of his collection.
Now, look at these, he said, expansively
These are ceremonial sarcophagi,

and went on to tell me their stories. His hands swept through the air as he spoke, smiling. He pointed to the figures on the sides and told me the stories. 
This, and this, you can draw for me, he said. That would be wonderful!
The potsherds I drew for him we called martini glasses, because that is what they looked like, with design that looked so modern.

Suddenly he would say happily:
Come on, leave that a moment, let's go walking 
And would take me to show me something new. One time the children's graveyard.
We went outside into the glare, he trotted right over the chuck pile, and I followed him along the fence. 
him waving his arms about as he spoke, smiling, almost theatrical. He delighted in showing me things, dropping his voice to tell me,
we are not sure about this graveyard, or why there were so many children in it.
He loved to hear about my life, astonishingly. 
He would clasp his hands together in genuine delight: (really?How marvellous! Splendid!)
when I told him of something: painting, swimming, the martial arts I had been learning.

Later at dinner he had a dig at the director: 
Watch out there, I may just request Fiona cut you down to size, he would say, making karate motions with his hands.

Oh, I adored Nicolas. Everybody did, because he was just wonderful.
 He came sometimes when I was drawing for one of the other professors, to look at his collection., and sit in the lemon scented heat of the courtyard.  
Eventually I was given the most wonderful task: the peak sanctuary figurines to illustrate.

I drew them, repeatedly, making mistakes on purpose, so that I could spend more time with these curious little objects. I loved them, their strange little terracotta limbs, their little faces.  Until the day I came across the Ponytail Boy, and I loved him more than all the others. 
The Boy watched me with a calm gaze, his large still eyes, his ponytail falling across the back of his head just so. I held him in my palm and spoke to him.

Practice sketches, Votive figure 

What happened? Where are you?
Even the thought of collazzo and marmalade could not conspire to make me put him down. I drew him over and over, more than all the others. I would draw them , and return to him, do it again. Rendered in ink, sketched in pencil. Reluctantly I would push in my chair, and go to the table to join the others. 
Ah, here she is, beamed Nicolas, pulling out my chair
our Australian!


I gave a paper in Venice. 
Something caught my eye in the conference schedule, a Greek Archaeologist, Anna, speaking on Cretan figurines. 
Her paper was wonderful, and had so many images of things I knew. I asked her how her research fitted into the broader context of  Cretan figures, and she asked me if I knew of the Hill sanctuary figurines of Professor P.
Yes, I answered, I illustrated them for him.
Those drawings are somewhere in the Ashmolean at Oxford. Somewhere.
Standing on the edge of the sea in Venice, I caught the hot chalky whiff  of a wind which starts in North Africa, sweeps through the mediterranean, and brushes lightly up that narrow arm of water between the coasts of Dalmacija and Italy.

Sadly, I never saw Nicolas Coldstream again. I finally found him a little too late:
"As a person Nicolas Coldstream was a delight to know. Tall and dignified, wholly unpompous, modest and ever with a gentle twinkle or a good laugh, he was, in a recent Greek tribute (and Greeks know what they mean), the archetypal English gentleman."


I kept up with some of the others. James is now the Director,  and many from my time are renowned in their field, with many highly regarded publications. A new wave of archaeologists like Anna now deconstructs the narratives put into place by the early archaeologists. 
The Ponytail Boy?
I still have him, well, his picture anyway. I kept it. I never submitted my practice sketches...

 Venice surprisingly brought back so many things, the hot air, the faint scent of the mediterranean.  Bright flowers tumbling, the stirring of blood, shafts of hot light, a loved face, a quiet gaze, sacred places.
Breakfast under flowering vines, heat, the feeling of time suspended, and the feeling that I never ever ever wanted to be
anywhere else, ever.


ganching said...

I´m reading this in an albergue in Spain and wishing I could write half as well as this.

fifi said...

oh, Hola!!

I hope youre having a great time, you must have collected quite a following bynow.

Oh, and you write beautifully. Come on now!

Linda Sue said...

This post is so rich and delicious- i won't have to eat for the next year and a half!
I re-read your posts on a daily basis, thank you for all of them- FABULOUS in every way, amazing- your writing just sends me into raptures....

Mary said...

I will think of you and Nicolas when I am sitting under the vines.

fifi said...

Thank you Linda, that is very flattering!

Mary, oh, you can...please take me a photo, and raise a glass for me, won't you.

PauloTheHonoraryFish said...

You clearly had a wonderful relationship with Dr Nicolas. And I'm glad you held on to Ponytail boy.

Anonymous said...

Nicholas sounded like a gem – highly polished with a down-to-earth heart – no wonder you loved him. A beautiful homage, so much better than the more factual though necessaryily so obituary. Serendipty too as I finished A S Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale tonight while travelling home on the bus. A hard but wonderful read, despite endless pages of endlessness in the middle. The book is full of notions of stratification, be it human, flora or fauna. Nicholas as a character would have been something wonderful (shall you call A S Byatt or shall I? wot!). Thanks again for the inspiring writing, and the vision of Knossos (me & my ex-bloke did Crete in a Fiat bubble car).

lucy tartan said...

Hey Fifi, we must've been literally brushed shoulders. My husband gave a paper in Venice too, at a conference held in a fascinating palazzo over the canal from the accademica. That was your one, too? Wasn't Venice gorgeous?

Ampersand Duck said...

he had spent three years as a child in Townsville with his Airforce father.
Imagine, he said incredulously, me with an Australian accent!

Well, if you're going to go anywhere and pick up a fast Aussie accent, Townsville is the place to go. My mother shed hot wet tears when I lost my quickly-got English accent for an even quicker Qld drawl. Did your Townsville Italian say 'eh' at the end of every sentence?

Imagine, you & Dorian might have even chatted at the conference without realising the context! Wow.

fifi said...

Ducky, you just made me realise I have been very was a British Institution in Greece, which consisted of mainly Brits, Greeks and the odd Italian. And me.

Isnt that just WILD about being at the same conference in Venezia? I wish I had known. Even if it were only to say "oh, loved your bridescats outfits". What a splendid bit of synchronicity...perhaps we did speak, who knows.

Lucy! WE could have gone cat spotting! we could have poked fun at Liam Gillick's horrible stuffed cat!

fifi said...


Your comments always amaze me. I really must read that book, I do like AS Byatt. I wouldn't be surprised if AS Byatt knew Nicolas Coldstream. He would make a wonderful literaru character. I found myself remebering him, and how inclusive he was, so passionate about everything, but most of all, how he delighted in people, places and things in such an unjudgmental way.

lucy tartan said...

Another time, we will, I am sure. The universe provides opportunities. I've just remembered there was a stuffed cat in the Russian pavillion too, in the Serial Killer's Lair bit. It didn't annoy me quite as much as the German one.

I was in Winchester in the second week of July too, so clearly something unheimlich is going on.

fifi said...


What are the chances of that?
Most Unheimlich indeed. we may have been staying at the same Very Nice Place.
That's just fab. Love it.

I dont recall the Russian stuffed kitteh, but I did like the Russian Pav.

alice c said...

On the first morning of my first holiday with MrM I had breakfast at the British School at Athens. He had been based there while he was on a dig nearby. There was an extraordinary machine to boil eggs which I remember clearly.

I asked him if he knew Nicholas Coldstream and he knew the name because of his publications but had not met him.

Isn't the world a small and extraordinary place!

fifi said...


I don't remeber an egg-boiling machin, but I do remember the boiled eggs for proper breakfast.

Was this at knossos?