Our next seminar will be taken by Christina Smith on the 12th of November 2018. As usual tea and biscuits will be served at 17:40 with the seminar starting at 18:00. Below we talked to Christina about archaeology and violins.
Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?
I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. At the age of 8, I began playing West Highland fiddle music, something which has steadily, yet powerfully, guided my life for nearly two decades. I am grateful that traditional music has raised me with a deep appreciation for tradition. It has also fostered in me the desire to pass that tradition onto the next generation, something which shapes my academic interests too. And it has given me Hebridean-bred Calum MacKinnon, without whom my passion would not have found its voice.
At age 19, I moved to Northern California for four years to pursue an undergraduate degree in Classics at Stanford University. If I’m honest, I can’t deny that some days I very much miss the sunshine and palm trees—even if my academic studies, musical heart, and trowel lie here in the North.
After graduating from Stanford, I packed my bags and fiddle case for Glasgow, where I pursued a year-long MLitt in Early Medieval Scottish History. My decision to study Scottish History in Glasgow was very intentional and, like a good cup of Yorkshire Tea, had been brewing for some time before I left Stanford. That year was defined by grit and growth, and I will always be thankful for the ways in which I found it personally challenging. It certainly helped me ‘know thyself’ (as the Oracle of Delphi says) when it came to discerning where I’d be and what I’d study for the PhD. Without Glasgow I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to trust myself and make the PhD decision I did in the end, even when there were voices to sway me otherwise.
After Glasgow I moved once more, this time to Durham. I pursued an MA in Early Medieval Archaeology, again a decision I’d been ruminating on for some time.
I chose to stay in Durham for my PhD, even with a tantalising funded offer elsewhere. I know that Durham has the best people and resources for my research (plus two fantastic supervisors in David Petts and Sarah Semple). I also know that I made my PhD decision with intentionality and, hopefully, for the right reasons. Furthermore, Durham is within close reach of my friends, colleagues, and favourite jam sessions in Glasgow!
What brought you to Durham?
I’ve been coming to Durham City most summers since I was a little girl, as my mother graduated from the University in the 80s. Before the age of 15, I think I’d been to Hatfield College and Bede’s tomb in the Cathedral more times than I could count!
From an academic perspective, I was drawn to Durham’s Department of Archaeology for its world-renowned research and teaching. There is no question that Durham has one of the top archaeology departments in the world, and for my field—early medieval Northern Britain—there are really few places that rival its scope and rigour. Additionally, I love the fact that our Department has scholars and students with such temporal and geographic breadth. While my research is at present decidedly focused on the Insular world, this helps me to daily situate my studies within their broader context. Add to this the Department’s incredible technical expertise, helping me with skills like Geophysics and GIS, and you have an unbeatable team under one roof!
What is your favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period?
Hmm…How to choose?! I think I’d say that my favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period is also something I find most challenging and frustrating about it: fragments. Yes, much of history and archaeology is about piecing together fragments. But this becomes extra difficult when working on a period and place, as I do, that lacks a robust textual record—and at times has no textual record at all. This not only underlines the importance of material culture in ‘writing’ history, but also shows the benefit of multi-disciplinary research. I know that my own multi-disciplinary toolkit shapes how I continue to grow as a thinker and researcher.
As the great violinist Itzhak Perlman once said, we must learn to ‘make music of what remains.’ Sometimes that music is concordant, but often it is discordant (much like life). In the end, though, it’s about making some tune out of the fragments.
What does your research focus on?
I’ve spent the past two years researching the history and archaeology of southern Scotland. My two master’s dissertations focused on different aspects of early medieval stone sculpture in the region. The PhD simultaneously broadens my scope to encompass the whole of Britain, while at the same time narrowing down on one particular type of stone sculpture: the free-standing high cross. In all, I’m interested in the underutilised potential of Britain’s rich early medieval sculpture record. Take, for example, the fact that a great many early medieval sites in southern Scotland would be completelyunknown to us if it were not for the presence of a single piece of carved stone. Often built into the walls of later medieval parish churches, these fragments give voice to activity that the textual record simply does not (or cannot) pick up on.
What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?
My seminar looks into the distribution and development of the free-standing high cross across southern Scotland, AD 600-1200 (the topic of my MA dissertation). Geographically, this includes monuments found at nearly forty sites north of the River Tweed and south of the River Clyde and Firth of Forth. This feeds into a larger PhD project which explores the why hereand why nowof high crosses—why do we see this class of monument suddenly emerge at a particular historical moment, and why do these monuments only occur here in Britain (and Ireland) and not on the Continent? In my opinion, this is tied into bigger political, ecclesiastical, and social questions in the early medieval world. Though iconic (think ‘Celtic’ cross necklaces, tattoos, etc.), high crosses are very understudied from an archaeological point of view. While art historians have helped us understand iconographic motifs and models in high cross carving, we really don’t know much yet about the greater archaeological distribution of high crosses and what this might tell us about the sites at which high cross fragments are found and the people across Britain who chose to construct them. Though my undergraduate studies were littered with medieval art history courses, these sort of archaeological questions are the ones which have driven my postgraduate thinking.
If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t in academia, I’d probably be in some profession that involves a lot of public speaking. Since I was little I’ve had a love of speaking and writing, evidenced in the countless pictures my family has of me as a little girl with some ‘writing utensil’ in hand—crayons, markers, pencils, chalk, the gamut! After visiting BBC headquarters in London many years ago, I became fascinated with the idea of being a national news reporter. A nun in my freshman year of high school also said that I’d make an excellent lawyer. I think that’s just because I like to talk a lot (and verbalise most, if not all, of my opinions…just ask my very patient family and friends). If not that, then a step-dancing busker.
Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?
The Dream of the Rood. Carved onto the surface of a high cross in Ruthwell, Dumfries & Galloway, this early medieval poem epitomises for me the power of the human senses (sound, sight, touch). The poem, written from the perspective of Christ’s Cross, talks about a ‘young hero’ whose body is pierced to its surface. The words are visceral, moving, and haunting and emphasise suffering and the human body. The body of the man is mapped onto the body of the cross, just as the cross melds with his body, and there is this powerful moment of tension and fusion. The images carved onto the high cross’ surface, which are bounded by the carved poetic text, further emphasise tactility. (Thanks to Elaine Treharne for first reading me the poem in Old English at Stanford, and to my dad for first driving me to see the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland).
Also if we venture into the domain of music as text (and also go uber ‘modern,’ at least for this early medievalist!), I’d say Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. I’ve heard it in Durham Cathedral twice. Simply spellbinding!