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BE THE MAGPIE

PhD’ing on tactile access to microscopic objects. All about anthropology, archaeology, museums, cats and bad puns. Tell me your favourite history fact.

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  • Kate

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

And yes, I’m starting summer in April. It’s been a weird year.


They aren’t kidding, a PhD is a lot more work than it looks like. Been flitting back and forth between working and travelling, and am going to give you the photo montage catch up. Let us begin with April then eh?


April

In April I went to the SEAHA Conference in Oxford. I got to stay in the swankiest of student accomodation, presented my poster, and then spent time dodging rain and doing some sightseeing in the afternoons and evenings. Also got to have lunch in one of the colleges, which felt very Harry Potter-esque.


Straight after the SEAHA Conference, M and I went to Malta! It was warmer and sunnier than the UK, we had the sea out the window, and there was a lot of Really Old Things to look at. It was an excellent choice. We stayed in Xemxija (which is covered in prehistoric, Roman and Phoenician remains, and the oldest tree on the island btw) and travelled around the country to Valletta, Mdina, and Rabat. Valletta is the capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like most places like this, the main street is flooded with tourists, but if you go two streets down you can wander nearly empty areas. Mdina is the Silent City, as no cars (other than people who live there) are allowed in the walled city, and even then you only really see them parked in a few areas. It’s like walking into a movie set. Rabat is the town right outside of Mdina, which has early Christian catacombs, a Roman villa, and the strangest car park design I’ve ever witnessed.


Sadly, we did have to come home and back to real life. I had some data acquisition at the museum from our scanning electron microscope trials and did work both at home (with cat company) and in the museum.


We managed the first BBQ of the year in April, when a random warm weekend showed up and we decided to make the most of it. It was wise, as the weather was a bit weird after that.


I did also pop down to London to the UCL campus to become inducted into the Institute of Making. It’s the university’s MakerSpace, and gives me access to a huge plethora of tools and ideas for making any old idea I get in my head. The idea is spreading, so check if you have a MakerSpace in your area!


Finally, I got to prep, CT scan, metal coat and SEM data capture a beefly as my first attempt for data for my dissertation. It totally didn’t work, but the beefly did make a nice little victory pose for the scans.


May

May was a hectic month. Started it with the annual trip to Lyme Regis with the NHM to volunteer at the Fossil Festival. Lyme Regis still looks exactly as I left it, and the kids still know more about dinosaurs than I do.


Came home from Lyme Regis, washed some clothes, and threw them back in my suitcase to head off to Amsterdam directly afterwards for the 2+3D Photography Conference at the Rijksmuseum. Ophelia did not approve of my leaving. Amsterdam was a fun city to visit, but very expensive. Also, hunting for a historical building will probably lead you through the red light district and you should be prepared for the surreal experience of prostitutes in windows. Would definitely recommend the Rijksmuseum though. They’ve got a massive collection of All Things Dutch, and have displayed it really well.


Back from the Netherlands, M and I decided we wanted to attempt camping again. Reader, one night it got so cold that ice formed on our tent. If there is anything to be learned from this second attempt, it is that camping should never be done as early as May. During the days we had a good time of it though, with rather pleasant weather.


We had to detour down from Suffolk to Chelmsford to get M’s car fixed mid trip, but we used it as an excuse to see the remnants of the Springfield Lyons Bronze Age Enclosure. You can see where the perimeter of a camp used to be, as well as some burials. Again, felt a bit like walking onto a movie set.


We also visited Southwold again, and a new visit to Dunwich – the city that fell in the sea. It’s a really interesting story, and the last vestiges of the thriving medieval city can be walked around. Plus there’s a beach, and that’s always nice on a sunny day.


I tried whitebait when we were out camping one night when we went to the nearby pub. I had no idea what it was. Turns out, it’s like fish fingers that can stare back at you. As long as you don’t stare back, they’re not bad actually. M is still unconvinced.


Towards the end of the month the weather got better and I did as much work as I could outside in the back garden. Judging from the grassprint I left, perhaps too much. When the weather wasn’t behaving, it was all good though as M built me my new desk! It feels like a real office upstairs now.


Finally, we celebrated M’s birthday and had some walks about town to enjoy the new signage that Colchester seems to be putting up everywhere. Some are odder than others.


June

In June we went to Italy with M’s family and stayed in a town outside of Venice called Lido di Jesolo. Honestly, if you don’t have ALL the pasta, what are you even doing? The weather was gloriously sunny, the mosquitos were in full force, and there was always something to go see or do.


One of the days there we went to Venice proper. Venice is exactly as beautiful as everyone says it is. However, it is also filled with every tourist all at once. The day before we went a cruise ship accidentally ran into one of the docks, so they banished them all from docking when we were there and I’m not sure it made the blindest bit of difference. Still, you should definitely go. But maybe stay in the city itself and enjoy it when the tourists start thinning out.


Back in London, I was back in the lab helping with an intern doing some SEM work for me. We scanned all kinds of microfossils. We also pushed the SEM to its limits and ended up finding a fault in the contrast that nobody had noticed before and had to call out repairmen. Fun times. We also got to go up one of the towers of the museum, courtesy of my supervisor, which was a legitimately fun time.


There had been a heatwave all month and towards the end it finally broke with a deluge of rain to try and make up for the previous lack of it. SO. MUCH. RAIN. This has been a trend that continued throughout the summer, with a spell of no rain and high heat, then humidity going through the roof, then a torrent of rain.


Back at the museum, I finally got a chance to see the temporary Museum of the Moon exhibit. It’s free, so well worth a visit, but it’s also pretty darn cool.


Mostly though, I was downstairs doing work. Like sorting out butterflies in a box. And then bringing said butterflies to an after hours museum event to explain what I’m trying to do for my PhD to members of the public that walked through. So far everyone has nice things to say about it. So far.


Also, one day I decided to make a log of how long it takes me to get from London back home to Colchester. Not sure I want to know how long it takes going the other way after doing this. I mean, obviously I have an idea, but it just confirms my lunacy in hyper-commuting like this.


July

Not nearly so much going on in July. Went to Manchester for the MMC 2019 Conference and presented some of the work I’d been up to thus far at the Zeiss Microscopy booth. Got to see some really interesting work done in the microscopic world, and even learned a few tips and tricks. And it being Manchester, we got rained on.


Went to a wedding for one of M’s good friends as well. Beautiful converted barn location out in the West Country. Fabulous couple, amazing food, and riotous dancing were all a part.


Otherwise it was mostly just time sat in the lab, working on data acquisition and attempting some experiments.


Oh yes, we also painted the kitchen. And then got a phone call that they could take my gallbladder out the next day. So that happened. And then I got to wear those glorious compression socks for a week. God, those drugs were heavy duty. I didn’t have any pain issues, but I also seem to have lost 4 days worth of proper memories. To be fair, one of those was the hottest day of the year, so I don’t miss that one much.


August

August has been frantic catch up of data acquisition post-surgery and then write up of dissertation based off said data. This means I’ve been knocking about the house A LOT. So much so that I got to see our new wheelie bins delivered as our council has decided to join the 21st century and collect rubbish from bins rather than bags on the ground that get savaged by seagulls, cats, and foxes.


Most of the time though, I’ve been dragging the chair and table out and do my work in the sunshine.


There was some rain again, of course right before my early birthday BBQ. I watched the weather apps religiously up until the day and stared out of the office window.


Thankfully, the weather mostly held on the day, just giving us some exceptional winds. It was great to see everyone, though hopefully next time will be a bit less breezy!



And there we are, basically up into today. From here on out I’ll just be frantically writing up this dissertation and then prepping for the oral examination with PowerPoint that’s due to come afterwards. Oh yes, and waiting for ethics approval to do the proper PhD work as well with minors. But hey, what is academia if not a long list of things to do, things to chase up, and things to wait to happen?



— Kate

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Right, so I am now a week and a bit back from living at Hellens Manor for ten days. You know what? For being in a stables with 15 other people every day, we all got on really well. And by the end of it, we’d even managed some science!


Have you ever been told about an object when you walk through a historical house that just stands out a bit? A good story, a bit of mystery, maybe just something unusual? Well that’s exactly what sparked our interest in doing research on a painting whilst on our field trip down to Hellens.


During our tour through the house, the manager Justine told us a story about the portrait of Jane Halswell. She was the last of the Halswell line and only living child to her parents. As such, she was an important person in the household and when her portrait was done, she was given the thread and handkerchief as a symbol of her rising adulthood.


This was the bit that stood out for us. Instead of merely painting the needlework on the wooden panels, we were told that the artist had actually incorporated a bit of thread into the painting. No one was entirely sure where the thread was, but the loose piece hanging between her hands was definitely raised and looked to be the potential candidate.


Out of all the other paintings in the house, this portrait and her mystery thread stuck in our minds, and at the end of the tour we asked if we could do analysis on her to see if the story was true.


We were limited in this experiment by only having imaging equipment to test with, but we did end up finding some points of interest throughout the process.


We took a series of photographs of Jane in what is called multispectral imaging. If you think of the spectrum of visible light – on either end are wavelengths that can’t be seen by the human eye, but we know they are there – so multispectral = multiple spectrums. You’ve probably heard of the types we worked with this time – infrared and ultraviolet. Infrared light is often what you see in movies being used to map heat in a building or on a person. To do this, we had a commercially purchased SLR camera that had the filters inside the lens removed after we got it. With no lenses, the camera will no longer capture images that look like what we see – more of a blue-ish tinge. To capture the infrared, we attached a filter onto the front of our lens with a red hue, allowing only infrared light to pass through into the camera. In this case, we know that underdrawings are likely to show up in infrared, due to the carbon in initial sketches. We hoped we might find evidence of the thread in this manner, but although it stood out it didn’t prove anything concrete. It merely showed us that the threading in the portrait was done thickly and with great precision.


Next, we delved into ultraviolet imaging. Ultraviolet, or UV, is most commonly known as a blacklight – the kind that makes white material glow in the dark. Again, this required an additional filter to be placed on the camera instead of the infrared one. Our blacklight was not the variety for parties and actually emitted a fairly potent dose of UV radiation, akin to a very powerful sunbed. With safety gear in place, we turned it on and took some photos. Again, we could not see anything stand out in the thread region.


However, we did find some interesting touch-up work had been done in the modern era. This portrait is dated to 1612 on the top left corner, but the purple and black marks showing up on the handkerchief are showing evidence of a different type of paint being used to fill in portions.


We saw this across the painting in the light and white areas, which suggests the lighter hues did not fare so well over time and needed a little help over the years. Also prevalent under the two spectrums was touch up work done along the large crack forming along the middle of the portrait. In person, this painting is very visibly warped and bowing in the middle. It makes sense to find attempts at a restoration done in this region as it would certainly have not been a part of the original artist’s idea.


So, what can we say at the end of this? Not much I’m afraid. The thread area is definitely raised markedly and it would have been a simple enough matter to paint a line, affix the thread, and then paint over it again to secure it in place. The thread at that time would also be of high enough quality to remain an equal width throughout the strand, so the uniform line of the portrait doesn’t rule it out.


At this point, a chemical analysis would be required of the region to determine if something such as linen, cotton, or wool was underneath the layers of paint and varnish. Perhaps a challenge for the next round of students to come to the property?


Regardless, it is a lovely portrait that has survived over 400 years and comes with an interesting story at that. I personally don’t see the problem in suggesting that there may be thread in the paint, but am incredibly curious to see if they ever get testing done to prove it. Science and history do blend ever so nicely together!


— Kate

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  • Kate

As I type this, I’m sat in a cafe at Euston Station, comedically early for a train. But we’ll get back to that.


Where was I last? Oh yes, having a New Year’s in. ‘Twas lovely, except for having to give M grief for answering work emails at midnight. I suppose doctoring never truly stops does it? Anyway, we rang in the New Year the next morning with a delightful cooked breakfast and M put up a curtain in our kitchen that we’ve been meaning to get for ages. You can now sit at our kitchen table without the neighbours being able to see you in PJs from their bedroom window. Progress.


It was quiet for most of January, with a few forest wanders. Mostly it was just wrapping up my experiment paperwork from my last module. By the middle of the month though, we were back up to Norwich to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. (How has it already been three years??) M spoiled me and booked a room in the fancy hotel in the city centre, and even though we half froze through the evening, we had a great time!


Came back to a very needy cat who demanded ALL the fuss after an entire evening by herself, and then prepared for the next module of my master’s programme, due to start that Monday. This one was a really useful module, in which they showed us how to write project proposals and scientific posters for conferences. Short of grant writing magic, it couldn’t have been more handy for long term use. That paperwork is now turned in and ready for grading. Should hear back next month I think.


By the end of January we had a few freak snow flurries, but nothing like last year. It only stuck to the grass and was gone in a few days, as it should be.


February rolled in, and with it sunsets past 5 PM! Growing up in the southern US did not prepare me for a world where the sun sets before 4 for a good few months. Everyone was perked up by this slow change. Even Ophelia was more prone to hang out in the garden in the tiny sunbeam that hits the back gate.


Towards the end of the month we took a short holiday and met up with the family down in Padstow. We got extremely lucky and didn’t get any rain the few days we were there. This will never happen again. With the good weather though, we tried to soak up the beach and the water and the harbour side fun to the best of our abilities.


It went like a flash and so did the rest of February. We’ve now inched into March, and keep hoping the sun will stay out for the day. Sometimes however, you just have to go out in the rotten weather, and so M and I made a trip to the nearby Cressing Temple Barns. They’re one of the oldest wooden structures still standing in the world, being built around 1250. They are GIGANTIC. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for something so large. But when it’s something built for the Knights Templar, I suppose it would be. Totally free to visit and park as it’s owned by Essex County Parks, and I would definitely recommend a visit. I’d like to go back in the summer when the gardens are in bloom.


And now here we are, sat in the train station for a train that’s now only an hour away from departure. Time for lunch and hopefully the more reasonable humans in my cohort to arrive soon. Speak more when I have wifi again!


— Kate

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