By Kaisa Kaakinen
When the global pandemic stopped all conference travel last spring, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies alumna Veronica Walker Vadillo, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, realized that the unexpected situation required new forms of academic exchange. She sought help from Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, HCAS alumna and researcher of Roman law and archaeology at the University of Helsinki, and Kristin Ilves, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the UH, to launch a webinar series Down by the Water – Global Conversations in Maritime Archaeology. This conversation that now connects scholars across continents began in the Common Room of the Helsinki Collegium a few years back.
Inaugurated in September 2020, the webinar series has biweekly sessions on Mondays (#MaritimeMondays, as the hashtag of the maritime research community puts it). While the focus of the series is on maritime archaeology, it reaches out to other disciplines, too.
“Similar webinars are often focused on underwater or nautical topics or specific regions. Our series is about the whole concept of ‘maritimity’, what it means in different areas, and we also invite speakers who are not archaeologists to explain how they understand maritime communities,” Veronica Walker Vadillo explains. “Yes, and this approach really helps us broaden the scholarly discussions, as people doing maritime archaeology can tap into different disciplines,” Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz adds.
Furthermore, the series brings together scholarly communities from different geographic contexts. For instance, the organizers have been able to connect Helsinki to Asian scholarly networks and to the large Spanish-speaking community of archaeologists in Spain and the Americas.
“We decided to take advantage of this pandemic and transform Helsinki into a kind of hub of maritime archaeology. People usually want to present at places like Oxford or Cambridge, not only because they are prestigious but because they are so well located close to London,” says Walker Vadillo.
Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz have been happy to observe that the series run from Helsinki has acted as a bridge in the world of maritime archaeology, as, for instance, the event has put scholars from the Philippines and Mexico in touch, in what they hope is a first step in a fruitful collaboration.
“Also for my own field this exchange is key, as scholars doing classics and researching the Roman Empire are often quite isolated in their own fields of research, “ says Mataix Ferrándiz. “Methods that we use can sometimes be used to understand other empires. Right now I am studying the Indian Ocean and find many parallels to what happened in the Roman Empire.”
The events tend to draw about 50 online participants, a mix of people from various locations and career stages. Some recordings of the events have already reached over 1,000 views, and the video archive also presents a great resource for teaching. The project also has local impact, as there is always a good number of people attending from Finland. The events allow Helsinki-based researchers and students to get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere and to find contacts for their future research endeavors.
How it all began at the Helsinki Collegium
The interdisciplinary concept of the series was born two years earlier, when Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz were fellows at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Both say that the series would most likely not have its current form had it not grown from the interdisciplinary exchanges at the Collegium.
An important spark for the project came from a presentation by linguist Olesya Khanina, who presented at the Collegium’s weekly seminar about her research on Siberian rivers as language contact areas. Walker Vadillo, who was researching the riverine cultural landscape of Angkor at the Mekong river, and Mataix Ferrándiz, who specializes in Roman law connected to maritime commerce, understood that they could learn a lot from the way linguists approach riverine cultures. The seminar and lunch conversations grew into a symposium project, in which fellows working on archaeology, law, linguistics and anthropology set out to understand better the human–environment interactions in maritime and fluvial spaces. In addition to Walker Vadillo, Khanina and Mataix Ferrándiz, the symposium team included archaeologist Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a specialist in material culture and archaeological science.
The resulting symposium Down by the Water: Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Role of Water Transit Points in Past Societies took place in November 2019 at the Collegium.
“During the symposium, we were constantly talking about how all this was so rare, so out of our comfort zone. It became something wonderfully strange. That is what we want to continue, although the new series is more focused on archaeology and anthropology. We also aim to bring in people who are not from these areas,” Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz explain.
From seminar to podcast
The organizers of the 2019 symposium are currently editing a book that will be published in the series Cultural Studies in Maritime and Underwater Archaeology by BAR Publishing.
As for the webinar series, the organizers want to explore the podcast format, which allows one to listen to the conversations without being tied to the screen. As there are not many maritime archaeology podcasts out there, this is a promising direction. In addition to presentations, the series has already featured some roundtable discussions, such as a discussion on March 8, 2021, on women doing maritime archaeology.
“As we change the format into a more conversational tone, I really want to emphasize the advances we are making in theoretical frameworks,” Walker Vadillo says.
As an example of a session highlighting theoretical advances in the field, she mentions the event on April 19, 2021, with Roberto Junco, who works with the concept of temporal landscapes and talked about the archaeology of the Manila Galleons and current excavations in Acapulco. Junco studies how the temporal landscapes in the ports are dependent on a specific rhythm of different activities. In order to explain how the activities come together as the life of a port city, Junco draws on music and musicology.
“I am very excited about the chance to have such speakers and conversations and to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, it really enhances what we can contribute to the field in terms of theory,” Walker Vadillo says.
In addition to welcoming new audiences, the organizers are open to proposals for presentations. If interested in giving a talk in the series, you can contact the organizers by email.
Veronica Walker Vadillo:
Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz: