A history of the pot in 5000 years | Day of Archaeology

via A history of the pot in 5000 years | Day of Archaeology

On Friday, hundreds of archaeologists from across the globe participated in the annual ‘Day of Archaeology’ project, recording what they were up to on the day. The result is a wonderful archive of sites, projects and people, and a great place to find out what it is that archaeologists do in their day-to-day work. The Day of Archaeology website now holds over 2000 posts on every archaeological topic imaginable. Explore them all at dayofarchaeology.com. This was my contribution:

I began the day by preparing to get rid of several boxes of artefacts. This goes against many people’s expectations of an archaeologist’s role. Shouldn’t we peculiar basement-dwellers be hoarding everything, clinging onto dusty consignments of mysterious treasures for all eternity? Well, maybe, but the unfortunate truth is that British archaeology faces a storage crisis. Besides, there’s a limit to how often museum curators can feign interest in the contents of a Victorian dump.

But one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and I confess to being fond of the detritus of late-19th century throwaway consumerism. In this case, the finds in question were uncovered in Evesham, having spent the last 120 years in a pit. The museum didn’t want them for their archaeological collections, but thankfully a sympathetic social history curator was only too keen to snap them up for their educational handling collections. So, my lovely assortment of ‘Virol’ bone marrow containers, beer bottles and the ubiquitous ‘Camp Coffee’ jars were handed over to their new home, and will once more sit proudly on a shelf.

One item that wasn’t complete enough to be taken was this plate, depicting the bell tower of once-mighty Evesham Abbey. I love it because it highlights a very human desire to mark significance and local identity, and its discovery just a few hundred metres from the landmark it depicts amuses me. It’s as if the tower, still standing defiant and isolated, is stubbornly outliving our attempts to immortalise it in commemorative crockery.

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, c.1900

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, discarded around 1900

From one pot to another: having set up some of our volunteers and our work experience student with their tasks, I turn my attention to a site that couldn’t be further from the familiar world of late Victorian dumps. Project Officer Richard Bradley and I are working on the report for an excavation he led at Shifnal, Shropshire. It’s a fascinating but elusive site: occupied in the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, then seemingly abandoned before once again being a focus of activity in the Iron Age, about 2500 years ago. There are few finds (a common feature of prehistoric sites in this region), plenty of pits and ditches, and a tangled web of radiocarbon dates. It’s a real challenge to unpick which features belong to which periods. One issue is resolved when we identify some grotty fired clay as ‘briquetage’: coarse Iron Age salt containers used to pack salt for transportation from the brine wells at Droitwich.

What the Neolithic finds lack in quantity, they make up in quality. Tell-tale parallel worn grooves and a smoothed, ground surface reveal a block of stone to be a rare ‘polissoir’, for polishing Neolithic stone axes. And a large chunk of a Mortlake style Peterborough ware bowl, around 5000 years old, displays the unmistakable imprint of the potter’s fingernail in the elaborate chevron decoration. A pattern which, like the bell tower, serves as a mark of identity. Pots like this were produced across Britain, in a huge variety of designs but with strong regional trends in ‘fabric’ (the material incorporated into the clay during manufacture) that seem to defy purely functional explanations. Mass produced or hand-made, ancient or modern, a pot is never just a pot – it’s a window on a world-view, and in this case a direct connection to the delicate, precise actions of a craftsperson across around 250 generations.

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Archaeologists are a merciless bunch. “Where’s the rest of it?” they tease Richard. Elsewhere, work experience student Kat is tasked with counting, weighing and piecing together an impressive assemblage of Iron Age pottery. You can see how she got on in her own day of archaeology post. I welcome a group of school and 6th form students, who get to work on processing some finds from an HLF-funded community archaeology investigation into intriguing early ironworking sites in the Forest of Dean. Later, as staff and volunteers trickle home, I set up some photographs, bringing together two pots separated by 5000 years, but crossing paths on my day of archaeology.

On my way out, I pause to check on a very exciting discovery, recovered by our archaeologists from a Worcestershire quarry a few months ago. It returned from its trip to the conservator yesterday, and soon it’ll be going on display for the summer at Worcester Museum, to delight children and adults alike… can you guess what it is?

Mystery find - watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Mystery finds – watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Duck stamps and Goose steps

Early on Friday morning, I woke to an agonising feeling that part of my identity had been swept away, emphatically rejected by over 17 million of my compatriots. Over the garden wall, our overseas neighbours wept into morning cigarettes. Dazed, sick with worry, I walked to work, past the jubilant strains of a group of construction workers whistling The Great Escape.

On my desk, waiting to be photographed, was a small bag of pottery from a site in Gloucestershire, occupied around 2500 years ago, in the midst of the European Iron Age. One piece bears a beautiful example of a duck-stamp, a decorative motif resembling swimming ducks. It’s an example of a tradition of waterfowl depictions on ceramics originating in the Aegean and spreading via Italy to the South and West of England, where it is commonly found on pottery from Cornwall and the Severn valley.

Middle Iron Age 'duck stamp' Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

Middle Iron Age ‘duck stamp’ Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

I was struggling to focus. After all, what do pots matter, in the grand scheme of things? The economy was tanking, and I was staring at a row of swimming ducks. There is an argument that it is not for archaeologists to embroil themselves in current affairs: that the role of the public intellectual should be to present facts, not deliver arguments, to inform debates rather than to shape them. Any sympathy for this view on my part has long-since disappeared in a welter of sinuous half-truths peddled by all sides on the issue of Europe. Besides, working in an austerity-susceptible public body, my post chiefly funded by the freefalling construction industry and small public research and education grants, my employment prospects are bleak. So I’d best make hay while the clouds gather.

The lessons of history are as tangled and complex as the national and cultural identities they have shaped, and the one thing all can agree on is that no-one knows what Brexit holds in store for us. Why, then, should you listen to what I have to say? Haven’t the British people, in the words of Michael Gove, had enough of experts? The climate of anti-intellectualism is one of the most pernicious aspects of the Brexit affair. The Leave campaign scoffed at experts. The Remain campaign listed reams of them, numbers drowning out personalities, and repeated their message ad infinitum in the manner of a jaded sports commentator. Repeat after me: 90% of economists agree

Personally, I’m wary of the term ‘expert’. I tend to find that those quick to define themselves as such turn out to be nothing of the sort. But specialist knowledge is hard-earned, and it matters. And the more complex the issue, the less consensus there’s likely to be. Judge all you like, but don’t ignore expertise, and don’t believe that all opinions are equally informative. I hope I know a good bridge if I see one, but you’d be a fool to trust me to tell you how to build one.

So what of the historical precedent? There are no easy answers. Gerda Lerner put it well:

“What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way.” Gerda Lerner

She knew. An Austrian Jew, born in 1920, her formative years were spent in a febrile atmosphere of nationalist sentiment and antisemitism. A teenage anti-Nazi activist, her father’s attempt to send her to safety in England backfired when she was lodged with supporters of Moseley’s blackshirts. Following Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, she was arrested and imprisoned. But she understood that nothing is ever repeated.

I’ve seen many invocations of Godwin’s Law over the last few days. . From the dangers of referendums and warnings of allegiance to country over society, to a sickening wave of hate crime, it seems that all roads lead to Hitler. But accusations of fascism are casually made, and easily refuted. The very definition of the term is so disputed that its meaning is obscured. And there are key elements of the 21st century political landscape that make the goose-stepping authoritarian dictatorships of the mid-20th century all but unthinkable. Key elements such as the legislative and economic union of fractious, warring European powers in the ashes of postwar Europe. The union we’ve just voted to leave.

So, what can we draw from our two lines of comparison, the duck stamp and the goose-step?

There are ugly sentiments afoot, bubbling up through the cracks in our society, drawn out by a vote perceived as a confirmation of legitimacy. And those who have stoked them, through neglect or incitement alike, must counter the narrative of conflict and division. If your vote fans a flame, you cannot walk away from the bonfire. If you warned of the dangers of playing with fire, you cannot throw up your hands in passive despair.

The rise of such sentiments does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs against a backdrop of an internalised vision, a climate in which a much-needed overhaul of the teaching of history in schools became a uncritical exercise in navel-gazing, drawing protest from government supporters and detractors alike. A climate that emphasises nebulous ‘British Values‘ – not human values, not common values, but British values. Repeat it often enough and we start to believe that our values are exceptional, different, better. There’s a wonderful document, drafted by British lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe, that sets out exactly what those British values were seen to be, at the end of a war in which Britain fought with moral conviction in the name of European unity: it’s called the European Convention on Human Rights.

Leave voters, by now, will doubtless be aware that immigration will not fall steeply, that there will be no windfall bonanza in public spending, and that if we’re to have the faintest hope of clinging on to what remains of our economy we’ll need to accept the vast majority of EU regulation that we’ve just voted to ditch. Remain voters are coming to terms with the fact that, legally binding or not, a referendum re-run or parliamentary veto isn’t likely. I do not believe we will not end up dictated to by serried ranks of goose-stepping blackshirts, but something equally dangerous is lurking.

Leave voters were promised pride, control and a brighter future. The turmoil currently engulfing Westminster, and the reluctance of any of the Leave campaign’s most ardent campaigners to seize the nettle or present a coherent plan, risks leaving a dangerous vacuum. If delivery of the promise is delayed, watered down, or abandoned altogether, a sizeable proportion of those 17 million, whose vote was an emphatic rejection of the status quo, will feel betrayed.

There is no more dangerous popular feeling than betrayal. The lever that gave a foothold to the most infamous of all 20th century dictatorships was the festering sore of Dolchstoßlegende: the pernicious ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth of a hearty German army betrayed at home by a self-serving political elite, a heady fictional cocktail of Jews, Marxists and liberal politicians. That wound was ruthlessly exploited by the ascendant right, and helps to explain how decent people, in difficult times, can be drawn into a cycle of increasing division and internal conflict. Nigel Farage has already expressed concern over ‘backsliding’ on immigration issues. If concern turns to anger and a feeling of betrayal, we risk a fragmentation that no Winnie-the-Pooh meme can fix.

So, what of those duck-stamps? What lessons can we possibly learn from a thumbnail -sized scrap of 2500 year old pot? Well, I pin my hopes on that row of swimming ducks. Those ducks are a marker of European identity that stretches from the late Bronze Age Aegean to a muddy Iron Age field in Gloucestershire. It is unusual to see any figurative decoration on pottery from prehistoric Britain; indeed, some of the ‘ducks’ are pretty abstract. I’m not suggesting the potters consciously paid homage to some ‘Golden Age’ Aegean ideal in an act of European solidarity, or that their humble stamps were an attempt to copy the extraordinary bird-vases of Greece and Cyprus. But they did come into contact with a design which resonated with them. Quite what that resonance was is hard to unpick: was it aesthetic, symbolic, religious? Whatever it meant, it meant something: duck pots are a thing – a prehistoric meme, if you must. And 2500 years ago, it’s a thread that binds the Iron Age people of the Severn Valley to the south Cornish coast, to Italy and to the Aegean – from east to west across a continent.

As one part of the western edge of Europe seeks to detach itself, reports are coming in, as I write, that the eastern edge of the continent –  the gateway to Europe – has erupted into carnage. We are, inextricably, a part of Europe, geographically and historically. We share in its triumphs and tragedies. We have never existed in isolation. Let us not seek to do so now.

Perspective

I am European. Right now, in the murky depths of a campaign that has spilled into violence, I feel dislocated from my own country, a place I love and cherish through an increasing fog of worry and anger. But more than ever, I feel European.

I am an archaeologist. I spend my life delving into the dark, clouded corners of our human story. I tease the mud from the pots and bones, I draw the ink from the archives. I set them in order. I build an understanding, a narrative. I help to weave many histories. And always, I seek to put the present in perspective.

The events of Thursday were a hammer-blow to my faith in humankind. And so, seeking answers, I turn to the man who taught me that moral optimism is a position worth defending: Michel-Rolph Trouillot. A refugee fleeing Duvalier’s Haiti, a New York taxi driver, an anthropologist, historian, and cultural dynamo among the Haitian diaspora, he published a history of the Haitian revolution in Creole, the first ever non-fiction book in that language. He knew tyranny. And better than any commentator before or since, he unpicked the dangerous seam between past and history, control and silence, authenticity and manipulation.

“As various crises of our times impinge upon identities thought to be long-established or silent, we move closer to the era when professional historians will have to position themselves more clearly within the present, lest politicians, magnates, or ethnic leaders alone write history for them” (Trouillot 1995: 152)

That era, it seems, has arrived. So here goes. I set out my stall.

We have been an island for just 8000 years. That is less than 1/5 of the span of modern human history in Europe. Our island story has its roots across the channel.

Bronze Age barrows, Kempsey Common, Worcestershire

Bronze Age barrows, Kempsey Common: a marker of European identity stretching back 4000 years

But that was then, and this is now, people say. We need to take our country back. Back, presumably, to some date at which a line in the sand can be drawn. A point of self-reliance? A point of pride? Some point of peak Britishness? It’s the ‘back’ that pinpoints the malaise. Replace it with ‘away’ and the argument shifts, but the headlines, the Question Time audience, the Facebook comments, bark “back“. I’m sure every Leave voter could pick a point in the past at which, for them, the pendulum swung, and it’s insulting to dismiss that sentiment as ‘nostalgia’.

But here’s the problem: the past is not history. No set of circumstances can be considered in isolation, no point in time can be captured as a freeze-frame. Context is all. And for context, we need the historical narrative. The debate is not short on narratives – let’s look to the invocation of the spirit of Winston Churchill by both Leave and Remain. Churchill expressed many views over the course of his life: these are moments, dots on a roadmap. But the historical context is stripped bare, as words are rendered into meme or soundbite, tawdrily shoehorned next to a heavy-jowled photograph to fit into a twitter preview pane.

Conflicting claims for the spirit of Churchill

Conflicting claims for the spirit of Churchill

“Historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-à-vis the present as it re-presents the past” (Trouillot 1995: 148)

In comparing European unification under the EU to Hitler’s expansionism, Boris Johnson fell woefully short of authenticity. “A historian’s point”, Chris Grayling defended, but Boris is no historian; his chief contribution to the pursuit of historical veracity was to get himself fired from The Times for falsification. His appropriation of history cannot go unchallenged. Less than 24 hours after Jo Cox’s death, against a incongruous backdrop of flashbulbs and parquet flooring, a German court convicted Reinhold Hanning of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at Auschwitz. It may be one of the last such trials. Four survivors bore witness. They knew tyranny.

“Any historical narrative is a bundle of silences.” (Trouillot 1995: 27)

Those four are the exception. The majority are represented by silence, by absence. The obsession with Churchill is a symptom of a malaise: of the assumption that historical narratives are to be found and read in the letters of great, white, old men. That’s one narrative. The rest are built, and fought, and contested in the spaces between the lines on a page, and are no less valuable for being hidden from sight.

The most powerful of the silences, in this debate, are the voices of those lost in conflict. Ours is the first century for millennia in which war between European polities has not ravaged the continent, and the European Union is the living embodiment of that commitment to one another. This is the context. Forget cheap memes, forget wildly speculative economics, forget paper-thin accusations of unelected bureaucrats: our history is the thread that binds us. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to adapt, to forget, to move on, but:

“our contemporary arrogance… overplays the uniqueness of our times… [and] may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born” ( Trouillot 2003:29).

I grew up in an atmosphere of European harmony. Everywhere I have been in Europe, I have been warmly welcomed with open arms. As a teenager and student, I spent wonderful times working in international summer schools, in which the hundreds of students I had the privilege to meet taught me, as Jo Cox firmly believed, that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. On 23rd June, I will walk into a Church Hall to cast my vote, enveloped by the weight of the memorials to those who trod the same path, left to fight Europe’s wars, and never returned. I will vote to Remain. And I will do so in the knowledge that:

“…deeds and words are not as distinguishable as we often presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” (Trouillot 1995: 153)

And I will do so in the hope that those whose motives are insular and divisive are outnumbered by those of us who take history into our hands in a spirit of optimism, cooperation and unity.

The value of voluntary research

I spend a lot of my time talking to people whose passion is to disappear down the rabbit hole of historical or archaeological research. After an evening talk, over a well-stewed cup of tea in a village hall, or spreading a motley assortment of fieldwalking finds over a tabletop, the conversations follow a well-trodden path: “Well, you see, it started when I found an old photograph/scrap of pottery/interesting ancestor… and it got me thinking about… and so I ended up writing a history of the school/factory/church!”

I love hearing these tales. They’re a wonderful mix of enthusiasm, obsession, and more than a little exasperation. Researching the past is an itch that’s never quite satiated. I struggle to resist the temptation to hoover up every detail: a simple query about the location of a 1960s excavation and I emerge hours later with antiquarian accounts of Roman coin hoards used as currency in the markets of Evesham. But there’s a story for another post…

I often ask local researchers where their research ends up. A book? A website? A leaflet in the Church, or in the local studies section of the library? The next question goes one of two ways: “Have you ever”, I venture, “been in touch with your local Archaeology Service?” Some have, of course. They’ll have looked up sites, asked advice, given advice, pored over tithe maps or databases or pottery type series, and sent their work to the Historic Environment Record (the local database which records all sites, buildings and historic features and  investigations). But these are the minority. So many aren’t aware of the full range of what we do, as archaeologists, and the ways in which we look after so many aspects of the historic environment, whether it be buildings, historic hedgerows or below-ground archaeology. At a wider level, the records held by archaeologists go into planning strategies and priorities for further research (Research Frameworks), identifying threats and mapping how our landscape is changing. It’s so much more than holes in the ground. That’s why it’s vital to capture as much relevant research as we can.

The lack of awareness is our fault, and our problem. And it manifests itself cruelly, at times. We see people crestfallen, bewildered and angry when it transpires that their decade’s work on the history of site X or building Y hasn’t been considered in a planning decision, because it wasn’t in the records. The same reactions surface when a comprehensive piece of research isn’t the ‘silver bullet’ that protects a site from harm. Getting your voice heard isn’t a panacea for all ills. But it’s a start. Unreported heritage is unprotected heritage.

All of this has been at the front of my thoughts over the last year, as I’ve been working on a project for Historic England to try to get a better understanding of the amount and potential value of the work carried out by voluntary and community groups and researchers. The report is now out: you can read more about the project on Historic England’s website, and download the full report (PDF, 3.6MB) or summary (PDF, 1.3MB).

Why did we do it? Well, community archaeology has increasingly become a focus of research over the past decade, as have the effects and dynamics of participation in voluntary projects. But much of this work has focused on the outcomes for the participants: how did they benefit, how were they organised, where do they come from? We wanted to turn the spotlight onto the research itself, and try to unpick how much is out there, the types of activities undertaken by different groups, and crucially, what barriers or pitfalls they encountered and where the fruits of their labours ended up.

Here are some of the key numbers:

Assessing the value of community-generated historic environment research: key findings

Summary of key findings from national survey of voluntary and community researchers

Numbers aside, the fascinating aspect of this project was the opportunity to get a glimpse of the quiet corners of local libraries, the trenches sandwiched into a local park and the myriad other means by which thousands of people, up and down the country, come face to face with their pasts, and build their own narratives of exploration. Many archaeologists are prone to viewing local history as a nostalgia-ridden exercise in extolling the virtues of bygone eras. Of course, the quality varies widely. But so much of what I see is rigorous, challenging and, above all, enriching. We expend a great deal of effort evangelising, agonising over how to teach people to look at places with the eyes of an archaeologist. There are situations where this is called for. But we should spend a lot more time absorbing, listening, and teasing out the patterns in the pasts brought to life by the cumulative efforts of thousands of dedicated researchers.

The key, for me, is enrichment. An appreciation of a place. Because, I guarantee, there is no corner of this country without a tale to tell, and those tales will weave right across the spectrum of human experience. The thought that, for thousands of years, people have lived, laughed, loved, and trodden the ground you walk is a powerful one. It instils the notion of custodianship, the responsibility we bear to our descendants, and brings new perspectives on familiar places. And this effect is tangible. Just look at Leicester. I was there for a conference recently. The ‘Richard III effect’ was visible everywhere: heritage-led regeneration, in a city so buoyed by their pride in their past that the long-deceased king has even been credited with the surprise success of their football team. Anecdotally, I heard that falling crime rates in the city centre have been attributed to the discovery – a discovery that came about in part thanks to the tireless efforts of voluntary researchers.

All those thousands of projects across the country, shining a light into unexplored corners of our pasts, play their part in the creation of better places. And the more we can feed the fruits of this enthusiasm and knowledge into research resources and make them open and accessible, the better, for both the places and the participants. After all, the knowledge that your painstaking work will have a legacy and an impact is, in itself, part of the reward.

New Memorialisms

[In which the author tries, and fails, to avoid the New Materialisms, after an unexpected encounter by the Worcester to Birmingham canal.]

There’s a big debate in archaeological theory at the moment. It’s about ‘things’. If you’re not an archaeologist, you’re probably wondering what there is to theorise about. What’s theoretical about a broken pot…? Well, plenty, I’m afraid.

Specifically, the debate turns on the premise that things are things. It challenges us to look at things on their own terms, to stop relegating broken pots to the status of stepping stones to archaeological interpretations.

This approach, under the heading of the New Materialisms, would have us resist the temptation to view archaeological artefacts as subjects for interrogation, in pursuit of some higher plane of knowledge. Rather, we should respect things’ “own native ways of manifesting themselves” (Pettursdottir 2014, 345).

I face a dilemma. I’m very fond of things. Really old things, not-so-old things, shiny things and unprepossessing things. Part of my job is the care of things. Every week, new things come to me, dug from the cold earth, entombed in muck. My job is to care for them, to supervise their progress: to ensure that they are logged, cleaned and labelled with due care and attention. If they’re delicate, or vulnerable, I lay them tenderly in beds of foam, cushioned and sealed from any stresses. Later, I count them, weigh them, categorise them and describe them. I talk incessantly about what they mean.

And I love them. Well – most of them. I can’t say I was that enamoured of last week’s Smith’s Square Crisps packet (1987-89, with a competition for children’s TV show SuperChamps), but it played its part. But I find it difficult to separate the things themselves from their roles as signifiers of ways of being. They’re clues along a path to an understanding of lives lived before mine, whether that understanding is forensic or creative. Besides, I’m not sure my managers would react well if I presented them with reports consisting of raw lists of things, refusing to rationalize, and asking them to appreciate the “immediate sense of things themselves” (Pettursdottir 2014, 346). At a practical level, archaeologists rely on things to provide dates and interpretations, to assess the significance of a site, and to relate that site to other groups of things.

But I have sympathy with some New Materialist approaches. At its worst (as with any theoretical archaeology), arguments can be turgid, uninspiring, reductionist and devoid of any practical application. But there is some superb writing out there. I’ve quoted Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Things out-of-hand: the aesthetics of abandonment. It’s an absolutely wonderful read, a fascinating exploration of an abandoned Icelandic herring station that swoops from Heidegger to the overwhelming chaos of an abandoned stockroom, in a manner that’s frank, personal, clear and concise. There are few pieces of archaeological theory I’d describe as page-turners, but Pétursdóttir’s writing is lyrical and inspiring. What she conveys brilliantly is the sense, upon encountering a baffling array of abandoned artefacts, that:

“I could hardly claim that I had found them, but rather stumbled over their world, where they had been this whole time relating and mingling freely. In other words, I had no indispensable role in their past or future.” Pettursdottir 2014, 357

A recent encounter brought me face-to-face with this primacy of things. Along the side of the Worcester – Birmingham canal, our Young Archaeologists’ Club has an allotment, the last plot before an urban wilderness of bramble and scrub, criss-crossed by creatures’ tracks and blending to reeds at the canal’s edge.

After several years of inexorable re-wilding, I went out recently with a group of volunteers to tackle the brambles. With a few hours’ work, we’d cleared our way to the canal bank, behind the shed, to a patch in the lap of a distinguished, drooping old willow. And there, nestled in the trunk, was a private memorial. Artificial flowers, ‘In Loving Memory’, a plastic butterfly perched on top. Around them, a candle, a blue bauble, a curious cherub adorned with a splash of gold paint, a bunch of long-dead stalks still encased in florist’s wrapping, and a limp birthday balloon twisting wistfully from the nearest branch. A couple of empty cans of lager were entwined in the carpet of ivy.

Memorial by the Worcester to Birmingham canal

Memorial by the Worcester to Birmingham canal

Archaeologically, what is there to see? A memorial, evidently. An act of remembrance on a loved one’s birthday. What else? That someone spent some time there, had a few drinks, kept a vigil. What of the position? It’s quiet, tucked away, but relatively easily accessed if you can scale a wall or jump a fence. Along the stretch of canal which runs through the city, it’s one of the more secluded spots, especially once the allotment holders pack up at dusk.

So why this spot? An association with the canal, maybe? Or with the tight terraces of the Arboretum area just across the water? Perhaps with the allotment site itself. Whatever the connection, it’s a perfect niche, sheltered and safe. A few years ago, nesting swans chose the selfsame spot to raise a brood.

How long had the memorial lain there? Last time I was down at the water’s edge was Autumn 2013. The flowers were sun-bleached; a thin film of dirt lay on the decorations. Probably not more than a year, I’d say.

The archaeologist in me was half-tempted to find out. A glance at the expiry date on the cans, a label on the flowers, a closer inspection of the growth of the enveloping ivy. I might have been able to pin it down a bit closer, to build the narrative of the site. In the same way I recently looked at a snapshot of Mesolithic life in a 10,000 year-old knapping scatter, I might somehow be able to illuminate the act of memorial that lay before me.

But something stopped me. More powerful than the desire to interrogate and classify was the feeling, directly encountered, of stumbling over a world and into a moment of sorrow; that feeling imbued an understanding of the site that I’d not get from a methodical archaeological treatment. I was brought back to solitary vigils I’d held, reminded of the complexities of human emotion that led to the collection, use of, and departure from this poignant jumble of things, leaving them to “endure and outlive… and thus allow for new, unforeseen associations and new but different lives” (Pettursdottir 2014, 345).

Maybe the unseen keeper of the vigil thought about future encounters with the memorial. Maybe not. However and whyever they remained at that spot, the things I encountered deserved to be met on their own terms. A thoughtful and emotionally loaded encounter with them taught me more than a methodical archaeological classification could have done. I left the things undisturbed, having no indispensable role in their future. Maybe someone else will stumble across their world. Maybe not. They’ll carry on their vigil regardless, mysterious and enduring.

Porcelain, people and the pride of a city

People & porcelain

I’ve been lucky to meet many of the men and women whose skill, passion and graft made Worcester Porcelain the international phenomenon that it was. I love hearing their tales; more than anything I love their unabashed pride in the story of which they were a part. Their products were a marriage of beauty, art and science made possible by the extraordinary skill of Worcester workers.

For 250 years, Worcester excelled in the production of exceptional porcelain. From exquisite pieces for royal tables to the production of 30,000 spark plugs a week during WW2, through numerous changes of ownership and direction since the first firings in 1751, porcelain production has been synonymous with the city. The city takes enormous pride in its sons and daughters whose talents graced the dining rooms and exhibition halls of the world: people such as Richard Seabright, the Doughty Sisters and Harry Martin.

Royal Lily pattern, Flight of Worcester Porcelain, 1788

Royal Lily, the pattern that won King George III’s approval in 1788, and transformed the fortunes of Worcester Porcelain.

My childhood memories of the porcelain works are vivid: visits to grandparents in Worcester marked by trips to the vast ‘seconds’ store, rack upon rack of endless gleaming and glittering wares. A feeling of life, work and industry that made it quite unlike any other shop. I never could spot the flaws which had consigned a vessel to the ‘seconds’ outlet: all seemed impossibly perfect.

The city is steeped in porcelain. The factories were in the heart of the city: the Royal Worcester works lie just 50 metres from the Cathedral Close. Factory waste was often sold as rubble: it finds its way into yards, gardens and fields for miles around. Contorted slithers of kiln furniture and biscuit-fired wasters are familiar friends in the archaeological assemblages that I work on week in, week out; Worcester Porcelain is quite literally embedded in the soil of the city.

Production ended in the city in 2006, after years of falling demand. The Severn Street factory site lies empty. Parts have been sold off to property developers. The wonderful Museum of Royal Worcester occupies part of the site; it tells the breathtaking story of the finest English porcelain ever produced: a story of industry and aesthetic perfection, but above all, a story of people. I’m delighted that, last week, the Museum announced the receipt of a £1.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore and celebrate the social history of porcelain production in the city, telling the story of the workers, the community and the factory’s significance to the city.

Pride & Planning

Two days after that announcement, a decision was taken that will see the demolition of eight buildings within the conservation area, including many of the remaining elements of the Porcelain Works; the late-18th century ‘Farmhouse’ will go, as will many other 19th century buildings including all bar the façade of the factory buildings fronting Severn Street. And what’s to go in their place? Seven townhouses and three apartments.

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

The Severn Street factory façade will be retained in front of these dwellings, but that’s all that will remain. There’s a name for this practice: ‘Facadism’. It’s a bad idea. What façadism does is to cement the idea that the architecture is all: you can erase all trace of the human element, the lived experience, as long as you keep a small section of the most visible part of the outer shell. No matter that the shell, removed from its context, is a meaningless bauble, in this case uncomfortably juxtaposed with some smart townhouses.

It’s a cop-out. If a new build is truly worthy of its place, and the benefits outweigh the loss, let it stand on its own terms. If not, then it doesn’t justify the removal of the old. A façade is an apology: an acknowledgement that the new can’t match the old, and a tacit betrayal of the observer.

In order to understand how we’ve got to this point, it’s worth looking at the background. In 2012, The Bransford Trust put forward plans for a ‘cultural quarter’ on the site. The philanthropist and local businessman behind the proposal, Colin Kinnear, said at the time:

We are not intending to knock down the existing buildings, as these are sacrosanct, but we do believe we can enhance the glories of the site’s past and use music and art to create a wonderful place”. Colin Kinnear, 2012.

The proposals were universally warmly welcomed, and planning permission was granted in 2014 for an £11 million scheme that would see the site transformed into a cultural hub including a concert hall, viewing tower and open courtyards with cafes and restaurants, alongside studios and workshops for potters and artists, retaining most of the existing buildings.

Showroom, Royal Worcester Porcelain Works

The Grade II listed showroom, to be retained as a concert venue

However, the Bransford Trust has now decided the scheme is unviable, and proposed a new scheme costing £3 million. The revised scheme retains the concert hall in the (Grade II listed) former showroom, but little else. The ten proposed residential dwellings that will replace the demolished factory buildings will generate just one-sixth of the funds required, with the Bransford Trust meeting the remaining costs. Internationally significant industrial heritage will be demolished for a net gain of just £550,000.

The new proposals drew criticism from just about everyone with expertise in the significance and management of historic sites. Historic England objected. The Council for British Archaeology objected, as did the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the conservation area advisory committee and several former Museum curators. Many local residents, myself included, registered objections. I’m sure there would have been many more, but few outside of Worcester City Council were aware of them before it was too late. An unadvertised ‘public exhibition’ and small notices in the classified ads of the local paper appear to have been about the sum total of the public consultation.

The objections were overridden. Planning permission was granted. Behind-closed-doors meetings between developers and councillors had evidently convinced them of the worth of the new scheme. One Councillor is quoted as arguing that few of the buildings earmarked for demolition are “historically pure”, as if buildings are valuable only if they are pickled from the moment of creation, unsullied by use or adaptation. I feel for the heritage team at Worcester City Council, many of whom I respect and admire, who were placed in an impossible position by their employers.

This is a difficult and complex case. I am sure that Colin Kinnear is genuine in his concern for the site, and his desire to enhance the use of the former showroom as a cultural venue. He has demonstrated his commitment to other cultural venues such as the Swan Theatre, and is by all accounts a decent and charitable man. However, he is not a historic buildings specialist, and there are aspects to this project which are bound to raise alarm, and which risk being seen in a less favourable light. It comes perilously close to a pattern which anyone with experience of historic buildings and property development will recognise: a vacant site is acquired with grand stated ambitions, time passes, buildings are allowed to deteriorate, the scheme is found to be ‘unviable’, a much less sympathetic alternative is proposed, the new scheme is accepted as ‘only feasible option’. It’s a trick as old as the hills. I’m sure that wasn’t Mr Kinnear’s intention, but when so much is decided behind closed doors, it risks being seen as such.

Ten dwellings is hardly the answer to the housing crisis. Worcester has a very comprehensive document that sets out how to meet the demand for housing supply. It’s called the SWDP. It took a lot of work, is very detailed and is nothing if not comprehensive. This site is not in it. Mr Kinnear’s original vision is expensive. There is no doubt that the site needs considerable investment. Any scheme has to be ‘viable’ and sustainable, and someone has to foot the bill. But Worcester City Council has demonstrated the will to pursue capital projects of a similar scale, such as its £8 million investment in a replacement swimming pool. And if the long-term economic health of the city depends on tourism, as the City Council’s ambition for Heritage City status attests, then surely more funding options for the original scheme could be pursued. At the very least, the people of Worcester deserve the opportunity to engage in open and honest consultation, rather than private briefings behind closed doors.

Here, in a nutshell, is why I believe that the revised scheme is ill-advised:

  • Worcester performed impressively in the RSA’s recent Heritage Index: ranking in the top 10 nationally for the potential of its heritage, it topped the national table for its industrial heritage. Demolishing much of the most significant industrial site in the city would seem a perverse way of capitalising on this success.
  • Worcester City Council is committed to pursuing ‘Heritage City’ status, with the aim of increasing revenues from tourism and capitalising on the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the city. An invigorated cultural quarter would be a boon: ten private dwellings behind an empty façade, juxtaposed with an oddly-isolated concert hall, would not.
  • The proposals, in their current form, risk re-igniting anger and resentment at loss of heritage in a city in which demolition of historic buildings has been a source of considerable reputational damage to the City Council in the past, most notably in the case of the demolition of Lich Street in the 1950s and 60s, which caused a national outcry and led directly to the formation of RESCUE, the British Archaeological Trust.
  • The developers’ heritage statement admits that “the overall character of the site will see a negative effect, as a number of buildings which contribute to the group value and historical association of the site to the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works, will be demolished. This will have a moderate detrimental impact on the significance of the complex as a whole”.

I simply can’t see how this development would meet the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to be sustainable. Planning practice guidance urges that “When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting”.

This site offers the opportunity to engage in constructive conservation which enhances, rather than demolishes, the heritage associated with our city’s most famous industry. This proposal falls far short of that ambition. It boils down to whether it is worth compromising 250 years of industry and civic pride for the sake of £550,000. I don’t believe that’s a price worth paying. If you agree, I’d urge you to make your feelings known.

From resisted to Resistance: Greenham Common

Above a mêlée of resistance fighters and craft, green grassy hangers loom over the rebel airfield on D’Qar. Star Wars: The Force Awakens chose a strange and beguiling corner of Berkshire for the resistance base, a site itself steeped in resistance and conflict.

Pencil sketch of Building 280, Greenham Common

Building 280, Greenham Common. Pencil Sketch. R Hedge 2016

The story of RAF Greenham Common began during the Second World War on a patch of common land just southeast of the town of Newbury, on the banks of the River Kennet below the chalk of the North Wessex Downs. Used by the United States Army Air Forces during the war, it was subsequently mothballed.

The story might have ended there, but for Cold War tensions that led the United States to move its Strategic Air Command further west, behind the protective screen of RAF fighter forces. Greenham was transformed, and throughout the 1950s and early 60s the roar of jet bombers split the air for miles around. In the early 1980s it became host to ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), igniting a decade of protest that placed Greenham at the heart of the battle over nuclear arms.

The GLCM ‘Alert and Maintenance Area’ (GAMA) hangars filmed for The Force Awakens once contained those missiles. Their massive banks and triple blast-proof doors, designed to withstand a nuclear attack on the base, housed 96 missiles: 16 in each of the 6 hangars. In times of tension, the launchers could disperse from the base to launch sites in the surrounding countryside. Each missile carried a W84 warhead with a maximum yield of 150 kilotons, ten times that of the ‘Little Boy’ warhead that destroyed Hiroshima. 96 little warheads, each less than a metre long, but with the combined power of a thousand Hiroshimas. A thousand Hiroshimas, in six hangars on the edge of neat, genteel Newbury.

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

It was these structures that were at the heart of the impassioned protests of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps. There’s a pleasing circularity there: in life, as in fiction, the hangers were a focal point of protest against armies and ideologies wielding weapons of terrifying power. They just switched sides: from resisted to resistance.

The camps and legacy of the women of Greenham Common have been extensively and brilliantly investigated by archaeologists. Their work opened my eyes to the potential and value of contemporary archaeology. If you’re wondering what such a survey can tell us, and why it’s valuable, the 2009 British Archaeology article is a great place to start.

I never saw the camps, or the missiles – the last were withdrawn in 1991; I was still a child. But long before I came to live nearby, I knew the name: Greenham is home to an important Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site, one of many along the Kennet Valley.

Later, I spent three years living in Newbury. Like the airbase, my relationship with the town was problematic. It’s a lovely place to live, shop and enjoy. Lazy pub gardens on the tidy canal, upmarket shops and not a paving slab out of place. But I didn’t quite fit the mould. Habitually emerging mud-stained from a decrepit van or grease-stained from beneath an ancient Land Rover, I felt like a grubby Hi-Visibility fly in the ointment of a world of London commutes and country retreats.

But Greenham, I loved. I still do.

It’s a wildlife haven now: lovely lowland heath in which the public can wander freely. Gravel paths circumnavigate the colossal runway. Much of the concrete from that runway found new life as hardcore beneath the Newbury Bypass: from one controversial routeway to another.

On a visit just after Christmas, children meandered in unsteady arcs on new bikes, and packs of dogs raced gleefully around cold wind-frothed pools. The place buzzed with life. Bright splashes of gorse added colour.

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

But the traces of its past are all around: concrete shelters and twisted tentacles of circuitry lurk among the brambles, as if the departing airmen stripped what was sensitive and left the rest, conscious of the passing of an era. Plates affixed to twisted steel cabinets tell of contract numbers, dates and maintenance schedules. American fire hydrants stand incongruously by gravel ponds. Leave the main track and a buoyant avenue of young birch opens out onto Building 280, all breeze blocks and corrugated iron. The buildings could almost be agricultural, but for the faded flaking warnings tattooed onto their cold, heavy façades.

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

Behind Building 280 is a favourite of mine: the naked ferrous skeleton of a ‘fire plane’, perpetually marooned in its shallow lagoon for fire crews’ drills. It’s a reminder of exactly what was at stake here. An accident in 1958, in which a parked bomber was set alight by an exploding fuel tank jettisoned by another plane, took 16 hours and a million gallons of water to contain, and cost the lives of two airmen.

MoD sign, GAMA area, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

The GAMA site remains fenced from the runway area, defiant warning signs still in evidence. 25 years after the final removal of an arsenal that, at its peak, contained the potential to obliterate entire nations, the looming hangars are the backdrop to a child’s first forays without stabilisers, and the polite chatter of dog walkers lamenting the state of their muddy, panting companions.

There’s something inspiring about that.

Weathering the storm

There is no corner of these islands that is not stuffed full to bursting with physical, material evidence of the people and human processes that shape our sense of place. Britain is also fortunate in having a grand and proud archaeological tradition, both voluntary and professional, and a planning system that acknowledges archaeology and heritage. Yet 2016 is shaping up to be a difficult year for archaeology in Britain. Why?

Doug’s latest blogging carnival asks us to consider ‘What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?’. So here’s my answer.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale said recently that: “Removing places and things that have helped to give people a shared sense of history and identity helps to undermine social cohesion”. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. But he wasn’t talking about this country. He was launching a government-funded initiative to “protect cultural sites from the destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists”. A worthy cause. Yet in his own backyard, history is under threat.

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’d like to add a third to Rebecca Solnit’s list: losing potential, the loss of the yet-to-be-known. I recently saw an excavation on the edge of a substantial Roman site; sadly, the bulk of it had disappeared beneath a 1960s housing estate. The builders must have been pulling out Roman pottery by the barrowload. We’ll never know what was lost. Thankfully, this sort of occurrence is rare now, but it’s back on the rise.

To explain how and why, here’s a brief background: in Britain, archaeology is dealt with in the planning system under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is a slimmed-down replacement for the Planning Policy Guidance (1990-2010) and Planning Policy Statements (2010-2012). It means that:

  • Planning applications are checked against a database of known and suspected sites of archaeological interest. These databases are usually known as ‘Historic Environment Records’ or ‘Sites and Monuments Records’, and are held and updated by local authorities.
  • ‘Designated’ sites like listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments have special protection, but the vast majority of sites of archaeological interest are not scheduled or listed.
  • A qualified and experienced planning archaeologist should look at the potential impact of any planning application on sites of interest. Sensible developers will often conduct exploratory works before submitting an application. The planning archaeologist should work with developer and planners to try to minimise disturbance.
  • Where disturbance is necessary, the planning archaeologist will ‘recommend’ that a condition be attached to the planning permission requiring the developer to pay for any archaeological works – the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
  • The fieldwork will be undertaken by specialist commercial units: some are private sector, some charitable trusts, some attached to local authorities or universities. Sometimes, especially on complex projects, the developer will employ a specialist archaeological consultant to advise them.

Most archaeologists in the UK work within this system, to at least some degree. Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, the processes and discoveries are often poorly communicated to the public; we archaeologists have only ourselves to blame for this. Francis Pryor has recently written an excellent piece on the shortcomings of archaeologists’ public communication, and of the need for creative, individual thinking. Personally, I don’t believe archaeologists of my generation are any less capable of capturing public interest than those of his. The high volume of top-notch public outreach coming from early career researchers in British universities is testament to this.

However, I do believe that one of the drawbacks of the developer-funded system is that it has led to the belief that we can exist in a bubble, and don’t have to rely on public support: the planning applications will keep coming, and the work will flow. This is dangerously narcissistic, and the foundation of its core belief – that the planning system will rumble on unchanged, and continue tipping its hat to archaeology – is now looking decidedly shaky.

Planning-led archaeology has generated a staggering amount of archaeological research over the last 26 years, summarised in this recent Historic England document. Other fantastic projects like the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain have used the resulting data to transform our understanding of our history. Every archaeologist will tell you that the system has many flaws. Controversies over Old Oswestry Hillfort are a prime example. But broadly speaking, the principle is sound: knowledgeable, passionate people are supposed act as guardians of their local heritage.

pit alignment

Iron Age pit alignment investigated during developer-funded evaluation, Worcestershire, 2014

Increasingly, though, that’s under threat. In some parts of England, as a result of Local Authority funding cuts, there’s no archaeological advice being given to councils. 2016 has brought more cuts, more consultations – Lancashire and Norfolk face the axe. Our region has lost more than half its local authority archaeologists. Restructure follows restructure. Here’s what that means: in the last couple of years our service alone has lost over 100 years worth of experience, passion and expertise in the history and archaeology of our county. A voluntary redundancy here, posts deleted… This is how it happens, not with a bang – most councils are fearful of the reputational damage that follows a wholesale axing of services (although that is precisely what is on the cards in Lancashire) – but with a grim, inexorable slide. Withering through neglect.

Of course, services should be efficiently run, and provide good value for money. Yet these are services that tend to punch well above their cost in terms of generating revenue for their councils and ploughing money back into the local economy. Not even the most optimistic councillor could imagine that cutting an archaeology service will solve the shortfall in adult social care; the gain is miniscule but the loss has far-reaching consequences for those who value their local heritage.

There’s sometimes a perception among hard-bitten commercial archaeologists that local authority archaeologists have it easy. Public sector, they say. Easy money, good pension, job for life. They sneer, at a perceived lack of grit. “Half of them wouldn’t know an Iron Age pit if they fell down one”, grumble grumble. I know. I’ve been on that side of the fence. At times, I might have done some grumbling. But it’s unhelpful. Without these people working furiously to take a stand and fight for archaeology’s role in an indifferent planning system, commercial archaeology wouldn’t exist. It affects everybody – if there’s no-one to scrutinise that planning application with a seasoned eye, there’s no resulting excavation or building recording, no work for anyone and, more to the point, a site or building is lost forever under the tracks of a bulldozer.

And this is happening. Right now. In Britain, archaeological sites are being destroyed without record because there’s no-one left to scrutinise applications, or those that remain are too hard-pressed to check that council planning departments are heeding their recommendations. No-one has clear figures yet, and it will take a while for the effect of cuts to be felt: the planning system can move at glacial pace. But we face an unjust imbalance, in which innovative services with sympathetic, forward-thinking managers are able, as we have been, to weather the storm, bruised but still in the ring (thus far), whereas others less lucky are gutted or disbanded, leaving councils unable to fulfil their statutory obligations to safeguard our heritage.

Frankly, I don’t care who owns/runs local archaeology services. Charitable trusts, arms-length joint service groups, councils themselves… If it’s a sensible, sustainable non-profit model, then I don’t much care what it’s called. What’s important is having skilled, experienced archaeologists with local knowledge and passion. The government have recently funded experiments in ‘big data’ modelling, predictive algorithms – who needs a planning archaeologist when we can solve it all with software? Well, it’s the human elements that matter – the subtleties and nuances. Two gravel terraces beside a river: to a developer’s eye, they look the same, but one is littered with prehistoric settlement, the other not. It’s a feeling you get for a landscape. It’s what those years of experience are for. Stick that in your algorithm and smoke it.

I’m pleased that John Whittingdale recognises that neglecting heritage undermines social cohesion, but would encourage him to apply that maxim closer to home; a medieval mill or Bronze Age farm may not have the visual appeal of Palmyra, but all have a role in the construction and negotiation of our identities, in our sense of place, and in our appreciation of the scale of human achievement.

What can you do? For starters, get involved. Use your local services. Find out more about the place you call home. And if you’re worried about what’s going on, take a look at the CBA’s Local Heritage Engagement Network. They can help. But if we are to weather the storm, archaeology needs our support.

In Memoriam: SK(698)

I’ve never really enjoyed digging up the dead. But sometimes, we have to. It often comes down to a stark choice: we dig them up with a modicum of dignity, or they’d be scattered by a backhoe and ground to dust. You can argue all you like about the ethics, but once construction crews are waiting, you just have to get on with it.

This is an archaeologist’s personal perspective. It’s a response to the questions I’ve seen about what sets the process and philosophy of archaeology apart from Channel 5’s treatment of human remains in Battlefield Recovery. Enough ink has been spilled in condemnation of that show (see, for instance, this article). So instead, here’s an alternative: a reflection on dealing with the dead.

Little ones

It was cold, that winter. Behind the back of Pizza Express, we were shielded from the worst of the wind, but needling gusts brought eddying snow, crisp packets and leaves down into our hole, bounded by two tired commercial rear entrances and an access road. It stank of bins, and of the urine of the revellers from nearby nightclubs caught short; their nocturnal libations trickled down the trench sections and froze.

We were in a large commercial town, south of England. Slap bang in the medieval heart, outside a shrunken churchyard, leaving us with bodies, footings, more bodies, walls. I was on and off the site, dropping in when other projects allowed. A short commute, and the bonus of a first class pie shop round the corner.

C wasn’t so keen. He was a veteran digger. Not a lot of self-confidence, but good eyes and good instincts. We were stood up on the baulk, shoulders hunched, sucking on loose cigarettes rolled with cold hands.

“I don’t know, Rob. I don’t like the little ‘uns.”

C had a daughter, about two at the time. He doted on her, hated away jobs and loved nothing more than a day finds processing in his garden round the corner from the office, with the toddler forever threatening to overturn a tray of pottery.

We’d just been looking at a very young skeleton. C wasn’t the demonstrative type, but he sounded a bit choked. I was sympathetic, but in truth I didn’t really get it. It was sad, yes: ‘there but for the grace of God’ and all that, but it didn’t really penetrate my attitude of detachment. I was a tough digger, grafting my way through a painful and deepening recession, drunk on the idea of resilience.

I’ve thought a lot about that site, and C’s reaction, since. Five-and-a-bit years on, I think it might have finally clicked, thanks to a powerful piece by Sarah May. Why that site? Why did that upset C particularly? Sarah identifies the ‘private heritage’ of the act of burial that ties mourners, through acts of material engagement, to a place. A landscape. A special corner, and afterwards our perceptions of place are never quite the same. These days, I live near the village where my grandfather is buried. At the birth of my son, I walked to the graveside to share the news. It looks out over the river, towards the Malvern Hills.

I think what was upsetting to C was the shift in context, the fact that these remains, the interment of which would have had such resonance, had found themselves exposed, brought blinking into the light, in such dingy environs. It wasn’t fitting, the backdrop of wheelie bins and urine stains.

The site is now a bridal boutique, cleansed of urban neglect, in a quarter of town that’s on the up. There’s probably some sort of tenuous parable in that, but I’m sure C would tell me I’m talking rubbish.

SK(698)

I’m not a tough digger any more. Not really. I like to spend my winters indoors these days. Now and then, though, I get back out into the field. So I found myself back in a hole, on the south side of a celebrated church, in a corner of a midland tourist town. Neat rows, stone paths, donation boxes.

For those who haven’t dug in them, busy church graveyards can come as a shock. People imagine orderly avenues, folk laid to rest six feet deep, lichen-shrouded headstones propped in picturesque manner against the boundary wall when they get a bit wobbly. The reality is nastier and messier. Bodies stacked, six or seven deep. Crammed in, gravediggers’ spades slicing through old interments, tossing the bits back in the hole. Service pipes, rabbits, buttresses, all playing havoc with the occupants. It often surprises ecclesiastical folk too; every time I’ve worked in a churchyard I hear the same story: “There won’t be any here, it’s under the path…”, “You’re only digging down a metre so you won’t find any burials…”, “It was all cleared in the 19th century”… We smile, and try to explain, but it still seems to come as a surprise.

I hadn’t worked on one for a couple of years. The last was a strange experience – skeletons in a new soakaway under the south door of a sleepy parish church. As dusk fell, I was sat, alone, recording, just 40 hours before my own wedding, nursing deep and troubling thoughts on the circle of life.

So, back to my current abode, sealed by black sheeting from the tourists coming to marvel at the grave of a famous writer, which lies in the chancel about 20 yards from our site. Construction works necessitate the excavation of several hundred burials, medieval to 19th century in date. I had a group of 6, two adults and four children. Just a yard from the south wall of the church, and about the same below the modern ground surface. How many millions of feet have passed, inches above them, over the centuries?

The kindly old architect came round on his daily rounds. As he passes, I’m cleaning around the cheekbone of a skull, which must have tipped sideways when an adjacent coffin collapsed, and has flipped a young child’s pelvis on end like a macabre mask. The architect pauses, smiles, and asks “Do they keep you awake at night, those faces?”. I laugh politely: they don’t.

But what does get me is the loss, the grief, behind their stories. As I’m cleaning by the throat of SK(698), a small child maybe 5 or 6 years old, a few tiny specks of green corrosion betray the presence of a copper alloy shroud pin, and I’m taken back to the process of burial.

I’m reminded that burial is simply one act in a mourning process, in which much of the significant actions take place off-stage. But the act of burial is one that is bound up with a sense of place. My little corner once became the centre of someone’s world, a locus of sorrow and lament.

I don’t lie awake seeing skulls. But I do see the mourners. And I feel a duty of care, on their behalf.

It is one of the few times in our careers, I think, when archaeologists can be damned sure that we’re socially useful. Even I have to admit to flickers of doubt in the small hours. Would the world really be a lesser place without my tender analysis of the few scraps of pottery in an old ditch…? But in meticulously exposing, recording, and lifting human remains out of the path of the waiting JCB, our peculiar skillset comes into its own, ensuring that they are brought into the light with a modicum of dignity.

After analysis, they’ll be re-buried, with ceremony. But I’ve already made my peace with them. I don’t know how many of my colleagues do the same, but there’s a point at which I step back, final trowel clean complete, set up scales and photo board, frame a photo in the viewfinder, curse, wait for a cloud to soften the shadows, and pause. Just for a second.
But in that second I imagine the agony of parting, and the resonance that bound a grieving parent to that spot, and the power of that intangible private heritage. For someone, at sometime, that quiet corner became a special and terrible place.

The lyfe soe short

The lyfe soe short the art so long to lerne

Victoria Institute, Worcester 1896

This impressive stone plaque adorns the wall beside the Sansome Walk entrance to Worcester’s Victoria Institute, constructed in 1896 along with the adjacent City Museum and Art Gallery. The building is a glorious piece of late Victorian municipal architecture, all towers and soaring asymmetry, sweeping staircases and high galleries.

The plaque sits about 10 feet above ground level, high enough to convey gravitas, low enough to be clearly legible. I pass it frequently, as do thousands of others. I like to observe the others – do they acknowledge it, react to it? Rarely. Curious as to whether people knew of it, I started asking – friends, family, colleagues.  Few recognised it. Would I, had I not once crossed the road towards it, confronting it head-on? Possibly not.

To the plaque itself: “THE LYFE SOe SHORT, THE ART SO LONG TO LERNe”. It’s a variant on a line from Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, but the saying has roots in a Greek aphorism and appears in a Latin translation of Hippocrates as Vita Brevis Ars Longa.

It’s a reminder of the limits of our experience, and a challenge to complacency.

Archaeology is a discipline in which we are daily confronted with the limitations of our experience, both collectively and individually. I’m frequently asked “But how do you know?” How can I be sure that a piece of stone was modified by human hand, 4000 years ago? How do I know that this field once contained an Iron Age farm? These, we can answer with a fair degree of certainty. I hope to explore how we go about it on this blog. But then comes the killer question: surely you can never quite know how it was to see the world through Anglo-Saxon eyes?

Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. In doing so, you are forced to confront assumptions and generalisations: about what is ‘natural’, about what it means to be human, how we relate to one another and react to external stimuli.

I don’t think the purpose of archaeology is to set out chronologies and preserve special trinkets of material culture, though doing so is an essential building block. Rather, the point is to examine how those chronologies and artefacts enable us to form and question stories about how we came to be where we are now. This view of history isn’t always popular. When it challenges dearly-held assumptions and identities, people sometimes react angrily: “But [event X] happened. You can’t rewrite history. The past is the past”. The trouble is, there’s no such thing as ‘the past’. Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it neatly:

“…the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here… The past – or more accurately, pastness – is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History

‘The past’ doesn’t exist as a destination or an entity, fixed and immobile. It’s still with us, in everything we think and everything we see. New information gives us fresh insights, and understandings of what happened in history are constantly filtered and manipulated, both overtly and subliminally. Our identities are built on our pasts, but those pasts are shifting and tangled. Done well, archaeology probes the dark corners and shakes the foundations.

Hal Dalwood, a recently departed and much-mourned colleague, used to say that archaeology is about ‘putting the present in perspective’. I think that sums it up pretty perfectly. Archaeologists have rarely had it better in terms of public exposure, but the process and the purpose are all-too-frequently lost amidst the shiny baubles and long-dead kings. Archaeology is everywhere, and affects everyone. So, this is a blog about archaeology: how we do it, why we do it and what it means for all of us, here and now.