Discovering the Late Antique Cyclades: A look into the island of Delos



The island of Delos in the Cyclades

In the middle of the Aegean Sea, roughly in the center of a cluster of islands known as the Cyclades, lies the small island of Delos. In ancient times Delos became home to a large polytheistic sanctuary, drawing visitors from all over the Aegean. The sacred island was famous as the birthplace of the god Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. The story goes that the twins’ mother, Leto, could not find a steady place to give birth. Zeus took pity on her, anchoring the floating island of Delos and providing Leto with stable ground. This is how the island, according to ancient authors, came to be ‘delos’, which translates as visible. By Late Antiquity the island allegedly fell into insignificance, leading to Tertullian’s remark in the 3rd A.D. that Delos was now ‘adelos’, or invisible. My research provided a strikingly different picture. Delos, once the sacred island of Apollo, was not invisible in Late Antiquity. Rather, it housed a relatively large and early Christian community that erected at least five churches from the 4th to the 7th centuries A.D.

This summer I was given the chance to investigate the Christianization of the Late Antique Cyclades. More specifically, my project examined the polytheistic sanctuaries and temples that were transformed into centers of Christian worship. In order to carry out this work, I travelled to the Cyclades along with Alice Devlin, whose project was about newly founded churches. At the islands we recorded very early Christian churches and their topography. At times this proved challenging, as we had to figure how to visit a good number of sites on any given island within a limited time. At Delos – which is only reachable via a local tourist boat that stays anchored for short time – we only had two hours to get to six different churches. Naturally, we had to prioritize and visit the most important Christian sites. To be honest, this involved a lot of running around and quick snaps with the camera, but we got it done. Undertaking this fieldwork definitely taught me a lot about careful planning, time and budget management, as well as how to properly record sites using a GPS system.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I will take from this summer as a developing archaeologist is the importance of experiencing the landscape within which sites are located. This proved incredibly useful for my understanding of why certain pre-Christian sites were chosen for conversion. For instance at Delos, all the churches were erected at likely frequented areas. The earliest churches were situated on routes, such as the 4th A.D. church built out of the remains of a late Hellenistic/Roman house in the area of Fourni that was situated next to a road into the island’s agricultural hinterland. The early churches of Delos were not located near the previous sanctuary area. Perhaps this was because it was too early, in the 4th century A.D., to build Christian churches next to the once sacred sanctuary of Apollo, which was still functioning at least two hundred years before.

The church of Aghios Kyrikios (early/mid 5th A.D.), Delos

The church of Aghios Kyrikos (early/mid 5th A.D.), Delos

In the following centuries, in the 5th and 6th A.D., churches, like that of Aghios Kyrikos, were built next to the sanctuary. As the visit to the island made clear, these churches stood near the entrances to the prior cultic area. On the one hand, this was probably the result of strategic church placement. Locating churches at such traditionally visited locations, like the entrances to the infamous sanctuary, provided the potential to draw on crowds, or at least peoples’ memory of visiting these areas. In turn, this re-use of pre-Christian locations maintained a past habitual practice of visiting the sanctuary entranceways. While the move to Christianity was definitely a big one, it also partly drew on the past landscape.

Undertaking this project was an incredible experience. I learned so much, and I had the chance to contribute to the study of an area – the Late Antique Cyclades – that was often seen as insignificant. I also loved learning about everyone’s diverse projects this summer, and being a part of a group of people that is so dedicated and excited about their work within their respective fields. Thank you for a great summer!

British Empire and the roots of South African Apartheid


Far from our cosy little University tucked away in Fife, where we like to debate the ‘housing crisis’ and take part in caped walks, the University of Cape Town has been racked in the recent year with student walkouts and uprisings. The cause? 1815. Well, specifically students have been campaigning for the removal of a statue of the infamous imperialist Cecil Rhodes from a prime location on the campus. Nonetheless, the history of British imperialism in South Africa is by no means fully explored in a fairly young Republic trying to come to terms with an extremely troubled past- of course here I’m referring to Apartheid, which only ended in 1993.

My Laidlaw research intended to take a look at the legacy that the British left behind during the era when the blocks of Apartheid were built, in the 1940’s. However, I confronted my first problem before even stepping into an archive. I was interested in looking at British sources of a racialized regime. But that meant I had to look much further back than my original scope suggested. In fact, some of the first secondary research pointed out that the roots of Apartheid policies could be found as early as 1815. I widened my search.

Once I began my research in the British archives, looking at imperial reports, correspondences, and legislation, however, it occurred to me I needed to again shift my focus. The process of decolonization in South Africa was slow and complex, with a gradual delegation of authority to white South Africans. As such, it seemed to me that the 1920’s and 1930’s were where I should be focusing my historical lens. These decades presented me with a unique overlap of British and South African authority- perfect for what I was trying to find.


Government correspondences in the British National Archives


‘Government scrapbooks’





Now that I had a better grip on where to look, I began the process of trawling. For anyone who has not had the pleasure/time/self-hatred to spend eight hours a day in an archive, let me relay the most obvious difficulty you’ll find there. There is a lot of information. And you cannot cmd + F to search it. On one hand, it I found it endlessly fascinating to decipher the scrawled handwritten despatches to and from Britain, and the smile at the sassiness of the British imperial service as they bickered on document margins. On the other hand, staying on focus was a learning curve. If something was interesting to me, but not related to my topic, I had to leave it behind. After all, government despatch books are like giant scrapbooks, and I had something specific to search for.

The second great difficulty I encountered was the exact antithesis of this first problem with primary sources; what do you do if an archive is empty? That may sound ridiculous, but if it does, you haven’t been to South Africa recently. Unfortunately, the National Archives in Pretoria left a lot to be desired; they did not have many documents of relevance, nor did they boast an organization system that made sense to anyone, even the archivists themselves, despite their commendable efforts. Needless to say, I was disappointed. But I hadn’t come all this way for nothing. While I did not have the access to the government documents that I needed, I fortunately found a copy of Sol Plaatje’s ‘Native Life in South Africa,’ written in 1916. Plaatje’s book stands apart in its measured tone and unflinching representation of British hypocrisy, from the perspective of an educated young black professional trying to fight against early Apartheid legislation. However, this again refocused my areas of study. I realized that I was focusing too much on the official rhetoric and not enough on the actual experiences of black South Africans. Even if they were legally franchised, were black South Africans actually included in politics before the advent of Apartheid? I began to take closer attention to the native voice. Luckily, the next archive I went to was the Western Cape Archives in Cape Town, who were remarkably organized of their material, which was much more fruitful.


Western Cape Archives, Cape Town

Eventually, I was able to mould the sources I found in both South Africa and the UK to come to some sort of understanding as to the British role in Apartheid. In doing so, I had to tackle both the official legislation as well as the actual experiences of non-white South Africans. In doing so, I was able to look past the British rhetoric that claimed British innocence of any racist legislation; this would lead me conclude that while this was the official line, Westminster was far more complicit in passing over power to a generation of white South Africans, more or less intent on segregation, than they would admit. Truthfully, this project was fairly depressing. It’s not very uplifting to track the gradual dehumanization of people, or their systematic exclusion from wealth, land, and politics. However, a young generation of South Africans (including myself) have started asking the uncomfortable questions that need to be asked, facing some unsavoury conclusions, and reviving the process of historical recovery.

Food, Fieldwork and Instagram.

This summer I set out to investigate the way people perpetuate a particular image of themselves on social media platforms, specifically I wanted to look at foods and the various implications these foods could have. I ended up choosing Instagram as my primary platform to explore how people construct their class identities through this outlet. As someone studying Social Anthropology I felt it was important to include ethnography in my work so I undertook fieldwork in Singapore and Cambridge, England, two rather contrasting societies.

My inspiration to do this kind of research came from West and Fenstermaker’s work on “doing identity”, that is to say they believe that we contribute to the construction of our identities through things like the clothes we wear, the language we use in discourse as well as other external projeScreen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.42.56ctions. These serve to create an impression which we have sought to present to the world, if it’s received as we intend then we have successfully constructed our identity. They believe that this can be ap
plied to race, class and gender identities. This is similar to Goffman’s idea that we put on a performance within the social realm, at times intentionally conning people, in order to be perceived as we wish to be.

One of the parts I enjoyed most about the research project was the fieldwork. Something I found particularly interesting were the contrasting cultures especially surrounding foods when eating out in Singapore and Cambridge.

Singapore is a vibrant and lively city state, filled with a number of cultures each with unique culinary histories and traditions. What has been produced in the short 50 years of Singapore’s existence as a country is a foodie heaven, eating is said to be a national pass time with what and where you eat being a common topic of discussion among friends and colleagues. Additionally Singapore gives the impression of a very status conscious city, a characteristic which extends to its residents. The towering skyline of the business district is a monument to the country’s rapid economic development and success, along with the plethora of shopping outlets notably The Shoppes at Marina Bay, a testament to consumerism and luxury. Finally there are the remnants of imperial rule scattered across the city, such as the Raffles Hotel (now only a touristy shadow of its former self), which command a sense of glamour and “old world” tradition. The city is well groomed with an army of caretakers tending to the impeccable cleanliness of the streets and the vast amount of greenery around the city, there are few details that are not attended to.

IMG_5745Cambridge is a remarkably different place, stepped in history, heritage and old world charm. Much of the city’s central structure has been maintained as it would have appeared centuries ago. Though cosmopolitan in content the actual proportions of diversity within Cambridge, much like other parts of Britain, are limited. Cambridge boasts numerous food outlets, yet the most common cuisine are European, “Chinese”, and “Indian”. The foodscape within Cambridge is incredibly privileged regarding availability, convenience and variety, from local markets, to niche locals, to large chains, food is everywhere. However the attitude taken towards food is quite distinct from Singapore, it’s treated more as sustenance essential to our lives rather than one of the joys of life. This is not to say people in Cambridge do not celebrate food or boast about its brilliance, it is simply that the values, language and ritual surrounding that celebration is different from that of Singapore. I would be interested in perhaps studying and comparing further the way different societies treat and celebrate foods in the every day. This has been shown to have a number of physical and emotional health implications as positively demonstrated by Japan and France.

Historically foods have always been a source of status, Bourdieu spoke extensively on the importance of food within the class and cultural sphere. In order to attain social status through foods they must entail social and/or economic capital. This is evident in the way we treat certain foods as a society, lobster, caviar and champagne all produce a certain class image in one’s mind. What I found was that people perpetuate a certain image of
themselves through Instagram that has classimplications as they are suggestive of cultural and economic Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.58.17capital. This became evident while doing fieldwork and speaking with people as well as being evident when doing quantitative analysis of people’s accounts. Much like Goffman’s notion of “the front” which we use to convince people of our status when we socially interact, Instagram serves as a 24/7 platform that advertises our “lifestyle” which we cancarefully construct.


Myth Busting In The Archives

Do you like myths? I do. I enjoy them for what they are – fictive stories and tales. However, as an historian I cannot allow myths to masquerade as facts. We historians are society’s chartered pedants, wielding a special responsibility to step into the debate and stammer, ‘ah, well, it wasn’t exactly like that…here’s why…’

Library desk

This summer, the Laidlaw Internship Programme has allowed me to do a little myth busting of my own. Allow me to explain. My topic of research was the British education system, or more specifically, the History syllabus in Wales between 1944 and 1999. (I was forced to concentrate on Wales since the UK’s education is too complex to cover in 10 weeks of research. I decided to focus on Wales since education had long since been organized and examined locally.)

My research began with the premise that at some point in the last century there was a departure from ‘traditional’ (i.e. male-dominated, socio-economic, religious, and political) history to a more diverse representation of Britain’s national identity to include the histories of national, ethnic and gender minorities. The principle aim of my research was to discover whether this hypothesis could be proven by a survey of the examination papers that students sat and the textbooks they studied.

Overall, I was impressed with the breadth of history that was offered. Students could elect to answer questions on wide range of historical topics, including religion, politics, education, high culture, society, economics, architecture, linguistics, biography, diplomacy, science, crime, war and conflict, literature, sport, gender, and migration.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that all or even most of these options were available from the 1940s. My research proved that there was indeed a process of pluralisation in British history teaching that gradually recognised the validity and value of setting questions on less ‘traditional’ aspects of history. I emphasise the word ‘process’ because there is no evidence for a radical change in the syllabus in any one year, or indeed in any one decade.

While I was not able to identify a ‘turning point’ or a year in which educators broke with traditional themes of British history, it was nonetheless quite pleasing to be able to bust one particular myth. At numerous times during the later twentieth century, Welsh nationalists and ‘culturalists’ had a habit of bemoaning Welsh children’s lack of awareness of their particular heritage and history. Pre-devolution, it was argued that if Wales had its own parliament then it could ensure that the Welsh education system could put this injustice to rights.

My research proves that if children were indeed ignorant of their history, it was not the fault of the education system. The very first papers on British history in the late 1940s made sure that at least a fifth of examination answers had to be on Welsh history – candidates simply could not ignore it! If more students studied History to 16 or 18 instead of dropping it at 14, then perhaps this issue of ‘British children not knowing British history’ would finally disappear…

Doing this internship gave me a greater appreciation for the work that researchers do, and how their work can influence public policy. At a time when talk of curriculum change is all the rage in Whitehall and Cardiff, it is vitally important that policy decisions are properly informed by the successes and failures of the recent past. For many students, the school classroom is their first point of contact with their nation’s history, and thus with a major part of their heritage as British citizens. The way we view history can influence our attitudes and values for life, and so it is in everyone’s interest that we get it right.

Optical trapping, or how I spent my summer building an (almost) tractor beam.

My internship began two weeks into the start of the summer vacation, at the beginning of June. I worked in the St Andrews biophotonics group, which brings together physics (in the form of optical traps, imaging techniques and spectroscopy) and biology.

When I first entered the lab, I wasn’t sure what to expect- the closest I’d ever got to “real research” was in my undergraduate physics labs. There I’d found out about optical micro-manipulation- basically, using light to move really small things (up to about 100um- or the size of a few cells clustered together) around.

Optical traps, or optical tweezers as they’re also known, work on some fairly straightforward principles. Light has a notoriously strange nature- it’s sort of like a wave, while at the same time being a bit like a particle. Due to this particle-like nature, we can understand some of the forces that light exerts- namely:

  1. Radiation pressure: Like throwing tennis balls at a car, you can use light to slow things down. Throw enough tennis balls and eventually the car will stop. The equivalent is to think about photons (light particles) hitting say, a moving atom. Eventually, when enough photons are incident on it, the atom will come to a stop
  2. The gradient force: This is caused by refraction of the photons through the trapped particle. When light enters a medium with a different refractive index, it changes direction. On leaving the new medium, it bends back, giving a bit of a ‘kick’ to the particle. It’s the gradient force that gives rise to the trapping effect of a focussed laser beam- a trapped particle is attracted to the region of highest intensity in the beam. For a typical Gaussian-shaped beam, this means any trapped particle likes to be nicely stable in the middle of the trap- very handy for us when we’re trying to position things on a micrometer scale!

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 19.32.18

Building the trap came with its own challenges- while there was a system already built in the lab, in order to accommodate some new components it needed redesigning and rebuilding. This was a pretty good crash-course in how to build an optical system- I’d never worked with anything with so many components, nor aligned anything so large, with a laser beam I couldn’t even see! However, once I’d got the hang of it (and got my hands on a very cool Mission Impossible style pair of binoculars to view the laser beam with) things progressed fairly quickly. There was a huge amount of satisfaction in eventually being able to see the tweezer working, and knowing that what I’d done is going to have a real application in the future (although due to size limitations on the trapped particle, no human-sized tractor beam just yet- maybe that’s next summer?)

In addition to just the practical experimental physics side of my project, I got a huge amount of opportunities to try new things and learn new skills- from tissue culture to literature research and outreach opportunities to learning a new programming language. I said at the start of the internship that I wanted to get back into the lab and prepare for my Masters project next year, as well as getting a better insight into research as a career. I am pretty happy that I’ve achieved both those things- applying things I learnt in lectures to experiments physically in front of me has been a great practical test of my knowledge, and has improved my experimental skills no end. Even better, it has firmly cemented what I thought I knew before- physics can be fiddly, frustrating and sometimes doesn’t work how you thought it ought to, but when it all comes together it’s very rewarding!

Coding and the curse of debugging

When I started my project at the end of June it was a blur of learning a new coding language, Python, and refreshing my knowledge of Quantum systems.  I can safely say that the first of those two was by far the hardest.  Having had a couple of languages under my belt really helped, but all the nuances and how they differed from the ones I already knew caused quite a few moments of tugging at my hair.  Coding is one of those things that looks daunting, but when you get into it the hours just fly by.  More than once I lost track of time and the world would just whiz by without me.  There is, however, one thing that I dislike about writing code.  Debugging.  There is a joke amongst those that code, sung to the tune of “100 bottles of beer on the wall”.  “100 bugs in the code to fix, 100 bugs in the code, take one down, patch it around, 113 bugs in the code to fix”.  The problem is, when you fix an issue that stops the code from proceeding it then reaches another few bugs that halt progress.  I have, on occasion, spent days trying to hunt down the problem with my code only to find it was an amazingly simple problem that was hiding right in front of my eyes.

An excerpt from my code, this part is setting up the coherent dynamics dynamics of the system.

An excerpt from my code. This part is setting up the coherent dynamics of the system.

Coding a quantum system has really advanced my understanding of how these systems work.  Now I have a stronger understanding of quantum mechanics.  Seeing the system evolve in front of my eyes, being able to modify some of the initial parameters, and watching how the evolution changes has been really helpful.  This visual representation has cemented ideas and concepts that I had trouble with in the past.

As my internship comes to a close, running my finished model has been my primary activity.  A single runs takes about an hour but, unfortunately, I have about thirty simulations. This has let to me discovering my least favourite problem (relating to the issue I outlined earlier): the frustration of a twenty hour simulation run which fails on the final model.  On the whole however, my internship has been a wonderful experience during which I have met many like-minded people from the research group, learned a new coding language, solidified my understanding of of quantum systems and, perhaps most importantly, had fun doing it.

Contemporary? Memorials? In Edinburgh?

On the first of June, I started my research without being confident in the meaning of any of the three elements in the title of my project. Although this might seem like a challenging starting point, it ended up informing my 8 weeks with a sense of true discovery that I had not encountered in any part of my university or school journey. I definitely find myself asking more questions than I did in the beginning, but reflecting back to the two months spent working I can see confusion as a healthy and important part of the whole process.


I can now briefly talk you through the three question marks of my title to explain the different directions of my research.


The first question was bound to be unsolved. Defining what constitutes a contemporary artwork is fundamentally impossible in any discipline. Endless waves of criticism have discussed it and tried to frame it with time or genre boundaries without achieving a successful and explanatory solution. Its difficulty partly constitutes the beauty of looking at contemporary art – it makes it broad and varied, still untouched by the restrictions of complying to a certain set of aesthetic rules. For my project, the lack of identifiable qualities to seek in a monument in order for it to be defined as contemporary meant that I had to make some selections myself.


However, establishing what a memorial is, is at least as challenging as calling it contemporary. Having left behind the monumental qualities of pre-war public art for ideological purposes, artworks destined to memorialisation now tend to be more discreet and diverse. They are also more collaborative and sometimes ephemeral, meant to push the audience to elaborate their own meaning rather than providing a specific view. This is theoretically fascinating but practically confusing. If one tries to associate an image to a traditional war memorial, something specific probably comes to mind. On the contrary, this is harder with contemporary memorials. Most of you will – as I did – picture Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin and expect most of the other works to be the same. And yet they are not.


In Edinburgh, these can be a collection of audio tracks that takes you on a tour of Calton Hill, highlighting how and why its heritage should not be forgotten and is still relevant, as Memorialmania (2014) does. Or they can have the continued magnificence of the Scottish National War Memorial, located in the centre of the Castle and to date the only place where Scottish soldiers are memorialised if they die in contemporary conflicts. Built in 1927 to host the Scottish Roll of Honour, the monument has never been moved or modified, nor has another place to commemorate soldiers been sought. Memory itself is almost memorialised through this monument that places all Scottish casualties in the same location, to highlight their common history and fate. On a similar note, other memorials display strong links to nationalism and to the debates surrounding Scottish identity politics. For instance, traditional Gaelic structures have been chosen to memorialise events such as the establishment of the Scottish parliament – in the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament (1998) – or to remember organ donors as in Finlay’s National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors (2014). This development can be read in parallel with what happened in politics – from past to more recent events such as the referendum. In this sense, reading blog posts like Raymond’s or Agnes’ has helped me consider new perspectives on what I was doing and perhaps change my mind over certain assumptions.


I understand that reading this brief account of my 8 weeks is not particularly explanatory, and even looking back to it I can’t quite tell where all the time has gone. I can only say that if you have any curiosities or questions on what I have been doing, feel free to give me a shout – I’d love to hear your opinion if you so wish.


A memorial I've not yet looked at - the Queen Mother Memorial in the Botanic Garden.

A memorial I’ve not yet looked at – the Queen Mother Memorial in the Botanic Garden.