TAG

Just before Christmas, I headed up to Chester on my annual pilgrimage to TAG – the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference. Hosted by a different University Archaeology department each year, the conference attracts around 400 archaeologists, chiefly from Europe and the USA, with a high proportion of speakers in the early stages of their careers.

The majority of delegates are based within — or affiliated to — universities. But there’s also a sprinkling of independent researchers, public sector archaeologists, commercial archaeologists… and those, like me, whose work and interests straddle multiple categories. In fact, at this year’s TAG, over 180 different institutions were represented.

Cartoon depicting TAG sessions

Cartoon summary of my TAG DEVA experience

So, what’s it about? TAG covers a huge range of topics, and every period from deep prehistory to the far future. It aims to take a critical look at the theory that lies behind what we do, and how we do it. Archaeological theory is sometimes considered by many students and practitioners of archaeology to be bewildering at best, and downright impenetrable at worst. There’s also often a perception that we’re still locked in the debates of the later 20th century, between the scientific turn of the New Archaeology that emerged in the 1960s and early 70s (processualism), and the post-processual approach that took shape in the 1980s, which acknowledged the subjective nature of all archaeological interpretations.

Theory? Arrgh!

Archaeologists’ aversion to theory is compounded, outside of academia, by an assumption that it’s a bitter battleground in which warring tribes hurl lightning bolts between ivory towers, leaving the humble dirt-archaeologist or pot-botherer to go about their business unaffected. But, as one hugely influential archaeological paper (David Clarke’s Loss of Innocence, 1973) famously stated: “practical men (sic.) who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are… usually the unwitting slaves of some defunct theorist”. Besides, archaeological theory is currently pretty lively, collaborative, and full of fresh and useful ideas.

However, it’s difficult to keep up with current debates without institutional access. Most archaeologists working outside of academia — in developer-funded fieldwork, or local authorities — do not have access to relevant academic journals, and find it tricky to take time out to go to conferences. Employers are sometimes happy to subsidise conference attendance for professional development. But TAG is often viewed with suspicion – perceived as lacking practical relevance. As conferences go, TAG is great value; even so, faced with funding it themselves, and attending in their own time, many colleagues are put off.

What are they missing? Well, the theoretical debates that most interest me at the moment are centred around what has been variously described as the ontological turn, or the material turn. Approaches under these banners are often described as relational, or post-human. I’ve written previously about one of these, commonly known as New Materialism. But that’s just one of a number of related theoretical perspectives. What they all have in common is an acknowledgement that if we really want to say something useful about how humans have lived, and the worlds that we have inherited, we have to dismantle the blinkers imposed by the way we see the world.

For the last few hundred years, in the West, our ideas about being and existence have been shaped by dualisms: mind vs. body, nature vs. nurture, natural vs. artificial, genetic vs. environmental, human vs. animal, reason vs. emotion, head vs. heart, sacred vs. profane… dualisms are everywhere. And they’re not very helpful. The world is more complicated than they suggest. Tim Taylor’s paper explored the way that we become products of our own technology: “bio-tech symbionts”. I’m soon to have an operation to reconstruct my knee, using a complex mix of organic materials and manufactured parts. Where, then, will I draw the line between which parts of me are natural, and which are artificial? The two work in tandem; neither will function without the other. Besides, consider every other ‘artificial’ mechanism by which I’ve survived and grown to date: medications both organic and synthetic, or both; technology through which I’ve learnt, produced, been diagnosed… the separation of elements into dichotomies like ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ doesn’t work. So, how can we find a framework for looking at systems involving human behaviour without falling back into comforting binary oppositions?

Agency

Towards the end of the last century, practice theory and the concept of agency were harnessed to archaeological theory. Agency is the ability to have an effect, to modify or reinforce a set of relationships or state of affairs. It is not just confined to humans, nor to living things: objects can be assigned agency, too. Agency is locked in a continuous feedback loop with the structure of the system within which the agents exist, leading to cultural reproduction – the ways in which systems are maintained or adapted over time.

Agency has, in one way or another, influenced pretty much all of the major trends in archaeological theory over the last 20 years. I can’t hope to do those debates justice in a blog post, but Oliver Harris and Craig Cipolla provide a brilliant, infectiously accessible summary of these in their recent book: Archaeological Theory in the New Millenium. If you got lost at post-processualism, or never caught the theory bug, do read their book. In fact, read it anyway: I love theory and it still taught me loads.

One of my undergraduate theory teachers was John Robb. He and Marcia-Anne Dobres edited the book on agency in archaeology. It’s been a formative and hugely influential concept for me. But I do have to admit that it’s a counter-intuitive concept to grasp. Maybe the term carries too much cultural baggage, and leads us too readily to anthropomorphise.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m not good at explaining it, but it’s sometimes too forceful, too deliberate. I’m typing this on my phone, when I should be going to sleep. Does my phone have agency? Undoubtedly – too much. But what about the mug on the table beside me? Well, yes, but it’s more subtle. That mug is special, made by my favourite potter, in a place that means a lot to me. I have had it for almost 10 years. It is only used for my last drink of the evening. The mug, in that way, habituates me. But to say it has agency implies a certain direct force, which risks flattening the nuanced mesh of relations between objects, places, and people, through which my interactions with the mug are governed.

Beyond Agency

As Oliver Harris pointed out in his paper, a quirk of the English language is that the very expression ‘object agency’ seems an oxymoron: an object is something acted upon. But our understanding of the importance and vulnerability of fragile, interconnected environmental and social systems increases almost as fast as their degradation plunges us towards ecological and political instability. We are linked, networked, enmeshed: however you wish to phrase it, humans are inextricably involved in the world around us, as we have always been.

So it was interesting to see a number of approaches explicitly moving beyond Agency, to consider ways in which — starting from a level playing field, or flat ontology — we can better examine the role of non-human things. Helen Chittock, discussing wear, repair, and composite artefacts in later prehistory, talked about the “conspicuous accumulation of visible histories”. The concept of Affect, introduced by Harris, is one promising tool; ‘Affect’ can be imagined as lines of force, describing how bodies — both human and non-human, living and not — press into other bodies.

Variety

Another great session explored relational approaches to studying the worlds inhabited by hunter-gatherers, with some breath-taking case studies. Ivana Živaljević told of the shimmering cloaks of fish teeth, mirroring the pearly appearance of the spawning Danube-traversing Black Sea roach (Rutilus frisii), donned by the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Iron Gates Gorge; Izzy Wisher spoke on Palaeolithic beads made from perforated deer teeth; Anya Mansrud on halibut-fishing in Mesolithic Norwegian rock art; and Worcester’s Caroline Rosen and Jodie Lewis looked at the significance of a tufa spring to the people and animals who returned to it across 2000 years.

A lively session on approaches to typology brought a fresh focus to a tired topic: every paper was concise, thoughtful, and well-delivered. It challenged us to not only consider the groups to which archaeological objects might belong, but also where they sit in a process of change: to look at what things are doing rather than what they resemble.

There was a wealth of other sessions on offer, too: on public heritage, feminist archaeologies, the nature of expertise… the range is always broad.

Creative comics

But the highlight of TAG, for me, was a session organised by John Swogger on Comics, Communities, and the Past. Some great case studies from Magic Torch Comics, John himself, and the University of Manchester got our imagination fired up, then as we heard the story of a Mesolithic barbed antler point from the Manchester team, we were encouraged to live-sketch a comic.

Mine began with the deposition of the point in a shallow lake in spring. A deer comes to drink from the lake, absorbing the power of the tool. Later the deer sheds its antlers, which are recovered, transformed into another barbed point for winter fishing expeditions, before the cycle is begun again with another deposition.

15-minute cartoon: Life-cycle of a barbed antler point

15-minute cartoon: Life-cycle of a Mesolithic barbed antler point

It was a thoroughly inspirational session, and inspired me to while away a couple of hours on the train home with my own version of the conference in comic-form. Aside from the difficulties of sketching on antiquated clattering carriages and freezing platforms, it was an enjoyable way to recall and process.

TAG is at UCL, London, on the 16th – 18th December this year. If you’re able to attend, it’s well worth going. It’s a gathering of people who share a passion for shining a light under the dark rocks of archaeological practice, and casting a critical eye over what lies beneath. TAG is a tribe: a maddening, provocative, welcoming, brilliant assemblage, and one I’m glad to experience.

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The Giant Wombat in the Basement

There’s a giant wombat in the basement of Worcester Museum. It’s there because Henry Hughes was bored of banking. It was the starting point of a story that has led me, via mid-19th century Brisbane and the learned societies of Victorian England, into some of the darker corners of the British Empire.

In 1838, the young and ambitious Henry Hughes left his job in Worcester for a new life in Australia. He was accompanied by the Isaacs family, including two brothers whom Hughes had known well in Worcester, Henry Edward and Frederic Neville. Hughes and the two Isaacs brothers — just 22 and 18 at the time of their arrival in Australia — bought a farm in Hunter Valley, and settled awhile. But it seems that this agricultural idyll failed to satisfy their thirst for adventure. Spurred by tales of fortunes to be made on the frontier, they sold up and headed along the coast, to the northern limits of New South Wales. They reached the Darling Downs — just west of what is now Brisbane — in 1841, despite having been robbed by armed outlaws along the way. Along with a handful of European settlers, they carved a life for themselves in the lush grasslands along the Condamine River, beyond the edges of their civilisation: a Terra Nullius.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. The land into which they poured their herds of sheep and cattle was no wilderness. The fences they hammered into the stiff clay were stakes in the beating heart of a landscape that had been inhabited for 3000 generations. The first Europeans arrived in the Darling Downs in 1840. Four years later, 26 properties had introduced 150,000 sheep onto the grasslands[1]. Known as ‘squatters’, the earliest settlers had no claim to the crown lands they occupied, but by the time that the Darling Downs were carved up the term had acquired a perverse legitimacy, applied equally to legal settlements. On the back of a booming wool trade, some squatters became staggeringly wealthy, leading to the birth of a landowning class known as the ‘squattocracy’.

For most, however, it was not an easy life. Nonetheless, Hughes and the Isaacs seem to have prospered. That we know anything of their lives at this time is largely down to Hughes’ friend Henry Stuart Russell, who wrote an account of The Genesis of Queensland[2]. It documents frontier life in the Darling Downs, from first explorations to the area’s eventual secession from New South Wales to form the state of Queensland in 1859. The book is dedicated to Hughes; Russell’s affectionate portrayal of his friend reveals a man of wit, generosity, and — in later life — considerable political skill. Russell paints a vivid picture of his first encounter with Hughes and Henry Isaacs. Expecting a pair of prim English gentlemen, he was astonished to be confronted with:

“two individuals seated, each on a keg, smoking. Little, apparently, over twenty years of age; covered with dust; shirt sleeves tucked up to the elbows; doubled up by the heat of work; straw hats, ribandless, and once perhaps of a lighter tinge, heavy boots, which knew not blacking-brushes; each with a silver tankard in hand, a short clay pipe in mouth, there they stood laughing”[3]

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs. By James Gay Sawkins, ca. 1852

They christened their station ‘Stanbrook’, after the Stanbrook Hall Estate near Worcester. It was soon renamed ‘Gowrie’, a corruption of the Aboriginal name for a local freshwater mussel: ‘Cowarie’. They stocked it with cattle. A watercolour painted some ten years after the station was established[4] shows a neat white stockade, a timber homestead with a steep pitched roof, and wild hills rising in the background. Two translucent figures on horseback canter across the pasture. By this date, Hughes had taken up the adjoining station — named Westbrook — though the men remained firm friends and business partners.

Frederick Neville Isaacs, in particular, was a man of rare skill, who adapted rapidly to his adopted homeland and became a skilled bushman. But he was also a man with considerable intellectual and scientific interests. He was an early member of the Queensland Philosophical Society, along with his sister, Elizabeth Coxen. Elizabeth had been 13 years old when the family emigrated. Having initially remained with their father in Sydney, she moved to the Brisbane area in the mid-1840s. She spent some time living with her brother at Gowrie. She, too, became a member of the Philosophical Society, and Gowrie evidently fuelled a lifelong love of natural history. In 1851 she married Charles Coxen, a squatter who rose to become a renowned naturalist, founder of Queensland Museum, and local politician. Elizabeth, who long languished unfairly in her husband’s shadow, was a brilliant scientist in her own right, and was probably the first woman in Australia to work as a natural history curator[5]. Gowrie was no rural backwater: it was a place where a voracious appetite for learning and discovery was shared and celebrated.

As such, the station attracted eminent visitors. The Darling Downs was a launching point for a succession of pioneers, heading north and west into the bush. In 1844, the charismatic and controversial Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt spent some time with the Worcester emigrants, staying on Gowrie station before an overland expedition to Port Essington in the far north of the continent. Frederick Neville Isaacs accompanied Leichhardt on a number of expeditions until the explorer’s mysterious disappearance in 1848[6].

During his first stay at Gowrie, Leichhardt was delighted to be shown some remarkable fossils excavated by Hughes and the Isaacs during the construction of the station[7]. They included examples of giant kangaroos, but the star find was a near-complete specimen of one of the most extraordinary creatures ever to have inhabited Australia: a three-tonne wombat named Diprotodon. This Ice Age colossus, three metres long and two metres tall at the shoulder, is the largest known marsupial.

Diprotodon optatum (2)

Diprotodon grazed the Australian bush for around 1.5 million years. How did such an animal evolve and thrive? Around 5 million years ago the global climate started to become cooler and drier. By 2.6 million years ago, the planet was entering the geological period synonymous with the last Ice Age: the Pleistocene. In a cooler climate, animals show an evolutionary tendency to increase in size, leading to an abundance of ‘megafauna’: animals with an adult body weight of over 44kg. Bergmann’s rule[8] suggests that larger animals have a lower surface area to volume ratio than smaller animals, so they radiate less body heat per unit of mass, and therefore stay warmer in cold climates. Geist[9] and others disagree, arguing that it is more linked to food resources, and ‘productivity pulse’ — the availability of nutrients per animal in a cold-shortened growing and feeding season. The ability to survive periods of food scarcity may be enhanced by bulk; a larger animal can store and survive on fat reserves. Whatever the cause, confined to their continent, Australia’s marsupials grew big. When the first humans made the immense 100km sea crossing from mainland southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago[10], they would have encountered many of these beasts, though their days were numbered. Tales in Aboriginal mythology of giant creatures such as the bunyip have often been thought to be an echo of collective memory of encounters with extinct megafauna[11].

The cause of the decline of the Australian megafauna is still debated. It seems likely that humans played some role, but were not the only factor: increasing aridity was making food resources scarcer[12]. The Diprotodon probably went extinct around 40,000 years ago. But the bones’ perfect preservation in the Gowrie soil convinced Leichhardt that they might still exist in the continent’s unmapped interior. Leichhardt appears to have exhorted Isaacs to send the specimens to his homeland for study, knowing they would excite interest within the burgeoning natural history circles of England.

The first Diprotodon specimens had been described by Richard Owen just six years earlier. Owen was brilliant; a vicious and driven man, but an outstanding naturalist. He founded the Natural History Museum, coined the term ‘Dinosaur’, and sparred ferociously with Charles Darwin. And the finds from Gowrie did attract his interest. He published them in 1859: describing and illustrating specimens of Diprotodon, giant kangaroos of the Macropus genus, and another genus of giant wombat named Nototherium. The fossils are described as being “contributed by Mr Hughes, from freshwater deposits of Darling Downs.”[13]

Despite the passage of over 150 years, some of those fossils still exist. I first encountered them in a battered cardboard box in the basement of Worcester’s City Museum and Art Gallery. They had been erroneously labelled, decades ago, as ‘Pleistocene: South America?’. Entombed in a forest of acid-free tissue paper, we unwrapped them like giddy but cautious children. And there they were: just as they were illustrated in 1859. A double-ridged tooth the size of a matchbox. A jaw, Owen’s name still visible on a label that seemed as aged as the fossil itself. A strange jumble of bones, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but brought to life by the sorcerer Owen.

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis, within Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Coin diameter = 23mm

There were more wonders in the box: bones of Dinornis, the heavy-footed moa, a colossal bird that grew up to 3.6m tall, endemic to New Zealand. Owen first identified the genus in 1839 from a fragment of femur[14], to a chorus of vocal doubters, who pointed out that if it were a bird, it would be unfeasibly large. But Owen was insistent, and when further specimens arrived from the Antipodes in 1843, he was proved right. We unwrapped a toe-bone: dark, branching, the texture of an old oak. It is an object of disquieting otherness, even today. Its impact in 1850s Worcester must have been extraordinary.

This small city was, in the mid-19th century, an intellectual hothouse. The Worcestershire Natural History Society, established in 1833, swiftly amassed a considerable collection. It found a home in 1835, when the Museum of the Worcestershire Natural History Society opened on Foregate Street. A driving force was the remarkable Dr Charles Hastings, who had founded the British Medical Association down the road at Worcester’s Infirmary three years earlier. The imposing classical columns housed a bewildering variety of curiosities. The earliest surviving accession registers comprise roughly seventy pages covering material accepted by the museum between 1837 and 1854. Within the first few entries, there are bird eggs and beetles; geological specimens from local quarries; an entire fossil tree weighing almost a tonne; a cast of a dodo’s head; a selection of Mexican insects; samples of lava from Mount Etna; and a fragment of mortar from the steps of the Parthenon.

Into this mix of odd bedfellows came the specimens from Gowrie, courtesy of Henry Hughes. But how and when did they arrive? I hunted through the registers, and found the entry:

1848 June… 17 Australian Bird Skins 1 Ormthorinus paradoxus… upper portion of Skul (sic) of Native 4 Native bags 6 war weapons portions of dress & ornaments and a number of Fossil bones mostly Jaw bones with teeth discovered in Australia presented by Mr Hughes who brought them over.”

“Upper portion of Skul of Native”. Hughes appears to have briefly returned to Worcester in 1848 with a macabre cargo. Besides the fossils, bird skins, duck-billed platypus, and an assortment of aboriginal artefacts, he brought back a skull. A human skull. An Aboriginal skull.

It is not clear from the descriptions whether the skull was archaeological, or of more recent origin. With over 50,000 years of Aboriginal settlement in Australia, it may have been ancient, uncovered along with the other fossils during those early years at Gowrie. But many of the remains acquired by institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were acquired in murky circumstances: stolen — and in some cases allegedly killed — to order[15].

Hughes and the Isaacs, part of the earliest wave of squatters on the Darling Downs, were in frequent and often fraught contact with local aboriginals. One encounter, in January 1845, saw a group of aboriginals spear and scatter a number of Gowrie’s sheep and cattle. In response, the local squatters rallied twenty horsemen to drive them off. In 1847 Frederick Neville Isaacs attempted to establish a new station at a place named Dullacca. His obituary later recorded that he was “very quickly driven from it by the blacks”[16], and forced to return to the relative safety of Gowrie. Isaacs employed a native tracker named Billy, who helped him to keep the local Aboriginals at bay, notwithstanding an episode where Billy was almost speared[17]. Employees of other stations were less fortunate: among those killed was one of Hughes’ Westbrook staff.

It may have been his experience with Billy that led him to become a vocal proponent of the idea of a ‘Native Police’ force. In November 1848 he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, refuting the suggestion that Aboriginals had been poorly treated, and arguing for the formation of a local ‘Black Police’ to protect the land and assets for which the squatters were paying the Crown. The first such native police force, a paramilitary organisation comprising units of mounted aboriginal troopers commanded by a white officer, had been established in 1837 in Port Phillip District on the south coast. Isaacs got his way. Between 1848 and 1915, the local force for which Isaacs campaigned — known as the Native Mounted Police Force — became notorious for extrajudicial killings and violent reprisals against local Aboriginals[18]. By using Aboriginal troops from areas distant to those in which they served, the Native Police units sought to take advantage of Aboriginals’ superior tracking skills, to keep the wage bill low (supplemented by freely available alcohol and tobacco), and to minimise the chances of reprisal attacks against white settlers.

Isaac’s assertion that Aboriginals were not poorly treated is hard to credit. Aboriginal grievances were well-founded. Their lands had been enclosed and transformed, their delicate ecology trampled under the hooves of the hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock turned out onto the fragile grasslands. Gowrie and Westbrook were held in the 1850s to be “two faultless and flower-carpeted ranches, the best for sheep and cattle this wide Australia holds”[19]. But those sheep and cattle were to prove disastrous, eventually destroying that flower carpet. The Aboriginals had managed the Darling Downs for millennia with an annual burning when the grasses were ripe and dry: a process known as ‘firestick farming’, it encouraged vigorous growth and maximised species diversity, ensuring a productive landscape that met Aboriginal food requirements. All of this was catastrophically disrupted by the grazing of livestock, the erection of fences, and the partition of the land into units under a system of ownership that was utterly alien to the Aboriginal way of life.

In the light of these violations, it is easy to see how Aboriginal resentment sometimes boiled over. But of all the violent episodes in this turbulent time, it is the poisonings that are most shocking. They were all-too frequent around the time that Hughes and the Isaacs were carving their path at Gowrie. Russell discusses one of the most notorious, which took place in February 1842 at Kilcoy Station, approximately halfway between Brisbane and the cluster of stations on the Darling Downs. Several white shepherds working for Sir Evan Mackenzie became increasingly alarmed by the presence of large groups of Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginals who were requesting flour, tobacco, and sugar. To rid themselves of this nuisance, they laced a batch of flour with strychnine. Up to 60 of the Gubbi Gubbi died in agony[20]. The effects were related in graphic detail to Henry Stuart Russell by an escaped European convict named James Davis, who had made his home among the Gubbi Gubbi[21]. Although widely reported in the Australian press, no charges were ever brought. Sir Evan Mackenzie escaped with a caution.

Such actions led to reprisals; the Aboriginal belief in collective responsibility meant that many settlers suffered for the actions of others, expanding the cycle of violence. Russell notes that Hughes and the Isaacs knew and had entertained the victims of the infamous Hornet Bank Massacre in 1857, in which 12 people, members of the Fraser family and their employees, were killed. The action, likely a response to the killing of 12 Iman Aboriginals for spearing cattle and the poisoning of an unknown number of others with a strychnine-laced Christmas pudding, sparked a vicious response which almost annihilated the tribe[22].

In such an atmosphere, with death a constant presence and a viciously antagonistic attitude towards Aboriginal people, it is not hard to understand how Hughes and the Isaacs had scant regard for the physical remains of the indigenous population. Whatever the origins of the skull, Hughes and the Isaacs placed so little value on Aboriginal culture that they saw fit to send body parts halfway around the world, to be catalogued with no more ceremony than a few ‘portions of dress & ornaments’.

I do not yet know what became of the skull. To those not familiar with historic museum collections, this may sound surprising. Unfortunately, it is not unusual. In the 170 years since Hughes brought it back, the museum collections have declined, moved, been revived, changed ownership, and suffered all manner of indignities. The collections of the Worcestershire Natural History Society had, by the late 19th century, faded from their heyday in the 1840s to 1860s and fallen into disarray. They were eventually moved to the new Victoria Institute, which opened in 1896. Much of the collection still resides there, but some has been moved to a succession of out-stores. Some records survive, but many more do not. There were the challenges of the Second World War, too, during which the fate of museum collections was understandably low on the list of municipal priorities. In a bid to clear space for war work, aisles of artefacts were dumped on the street. Their fate is unclear, but at least some are thought to have ended up in landfill.

There are practical issues, too. After 170 years, labels can become illegible, or detached. Transcription errors are perpetuated and magnified. Documentation can become a game of Chinese whispers, leading to cases like the ‘South America’ label on the box of Australian fossils. Worcester’s museum collections are now in excellent hands, but to unpick such a tangled web across hundreds of thousands of objects — spanning nearly two centuries — is a colossal task.

At some point, the skull was evidently separated from the rest of the material. Owen’s 1859 publication does not mention it. There is no record of repatriation. The uncertainty over its location is a source of spiritual danger, both for the descendants of the individual and for the land itself. This is equally acute whether the individual was tens of thousands old, or recently deceased. In Aboriginal culture, the living navigate the land by the knowledge of the resting places of the dead[23]. Their presence within the land itself is an anchor; their absence from the land is a curse:

“Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering. Unless they go back home the spirit never rests.” Aboriginal elder Major Sumner[24]

I have written before that we stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. Henry Hughes, Frederick Neville Isaacs, Henry Edward Isaacs, and Elizabeth Coxen were remarkable people. We cannot, and should not, overlook their qualities; it is precisely because they are admirable in so many other ways that their failure to accord Aboriginal culture the respect it deserves is so stark. They were active participants in an episode of human history in which the values of the European enlightenment failed catastrophically to comprehend the land and people they encountered, with appalling consequences. The missing skull, all the more powerful in its absence, bears witness to the dark origins of scientific endeavour and natural history collections. It cannot be ignored.

Museums across the country are filled with objects that are the gateway to stories like this. They highlight the complexities of the human condition. The best and worst of us is contained within them. How did a society that could transport those fossils halfway across the globe — and identify the beast to whom they once belonged — fail so utterly to appreciate the humanity and society of the people they met, in that continent of wonders? The giant wombat in the basement stares back at me. Its presence is a challenge and a warning, across half the world and 50,000 years: dig deeper, and tell of what you find.

This post is based on personal research into Worcester’s Ice Age collections, undertaken whilst working for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service on the Lost Landscapes project. Many thanks are due to the staff of Museums Worcestershire – particularly Deb Fox, Garston Phillips, and Kerry Whitehouse – for their help and encouragement. It is to Museums Worcestershire’s great credit that they are committed to frank and open discussions about the difficult history behind some of their early acquisitions, and we are currently discussing ways in which more of these stories can be told. Any ideas or suggestions gratefully received. Thanks are also due to members of the Royal Society for Biology West Midlands and the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, and the Megathread, for being a receptive, constructive, and supportive sounding board for this research.

Footnotes:

Click number to return to place in text

↑ 1 Ian Parsonson The Australian Ark: A History of Domesticated Animals in Australia (Clayton: Csiro Publishing, 1998)

↑ 2 Henry Stuart Russell The Genesis of Queensland (Public domain, 1888). Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1305181h.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

↑ 3 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 4 James Gay Sawkins, watercolour, ca. 1852. Public domain. Available at: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135205733/view [accessed 28 April 2018].

↑ 5 Judith McKay and John M. Healy, ‘Elizabeth Coxen: pioneer naturalist and the Queensland Museum’s first woman curator’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum–Nature 60 (2017), pp.139-160. Brisbane. ISSN 2204-1478 (Online)

↑ 6 See Darrell Lewis, Where is Dr Leichhardt?: the greatest mystery in Australian history, (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013).

↑ 7 Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an overland expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845 (London: T. and W. Boone, 1847). Available at: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00050.pdf [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 8 Carl Bergmann, ‘Über die Verhältnisse der Wärmeökonomie der Thiere zu ihrer Grösse’, Göttinger Studien 3 (1) (1847), pp. 595–708.

↑ 9 Valerius Geist, ‘Bergmann’s rule is invalid’, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 65 (4) (1987), pp.1035–1038.

↑ 10 Giles Hamm et al., ‘Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia’, Nature 539 (2016), pp.280-283.

↑ 11 Pat Vickers-Rich et al. (eds), Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia(Lilydale: Pioneer Design Studio in cooperation with the Monash University Publications Committee, Melbourne, 1991).

↑ 12 See: Judith Field and Stephen Wroe, ‘Aridity, faunal adaptations and Australian Late Pleistocene extinctions’, World Archaeology 44 (2012), pp.56-74.

↑ 13 Richard Owen, ‘On a Collection of Australian Fossils in the Museum of the Natural History Society at Worcester; with Descriptions of the Lower Jaw and Teeth of the Nototherium inerme and Nototherium Mitchelli, Owen; demonstrating the identity of the latter species with the Zygomaturus of Macleay.’  Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 15 (1859), pp.176-186. https://doi.org/10.1144/GSL.JGS.1859.015.01-02.37

↑ 14 Gowan Dawson, ‘On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=gowan-dawson-on-richard-owens-discovery-in-1839-of-the-extinct-new-zealand-moa-from-just-a-single-bone [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 15 Jillian Mundy, ‘Remains back in safe hands’, The Koori Mail, 23rd September 2009, p.9 https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/digitised_collections/the_koori_mail/460.pdf

↑ 16 The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 18th July 1865, p.2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1275400

↑ 17 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead, Kingsthorpe’ Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 18 (9) (2004), pp.406–419.

↑ 18 Jonathan Richards, The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008).

↑ 19 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead’, p412.

↑ 20 Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle, ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872’ (2017) https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=5014 [accessed 28 April 2018]

↑ 21 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 22 Gordon Reid, Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982).

↑ 23 Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Stolen spirits brought home to be at rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2011. https://www.smh.com.au/national/stolen-spirits-brought-home-to-be-at-rest-20110719-1hnbv.html [accessed 25 April 2018]

↑ 24 Paola Totaro, ‘Bringing home the dead so their spirits can rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009. https://www.smh.com.au/national/bringing-home-the-dead-so-their-spirits-can-rest-20090512-b1w9.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

Zen and the art of bicycle archaeology

It’s been a strange summer. I’ve been compelled to take a lot of time off work, immobilised by a knee injury. Physically, it’s probably been for the best. But psychologically, it’s been pretty horrible. Facing an uncertain future and a vague prognosis, I found myself gradually withdrawing. But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s partly thanks to bicycles.

Growing up, I never really got into fixing bikes. It was always Land Rovers, for me. Bikes were a mode of transport, not a way of life. Like every teenager trying to find their way, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — loved it, too — but I was still not entirely sold on the philosophy of fixing-as-therapy.

I got into bikes as a student in Cambridge in the mid-Noughties. My bike was pinched, and after a few days of being more-than-usually late for lectures, I walked into the bike shop on Botolph Lane. The cheapest boneshaker in their display was still out of my budget. In desperation, I pointed to a bedraggled looking lump of steel, awaiting resuscitation in the corner. The green patina suggested a recent immersion in the River Cam. Beneath that, it was black, bore the optimistic legend ‘COURIER’, and was — the bewildered staff told me — “unrideable”.

I like a challenge. Besides, I kept a Land Rover running with baler twine, gaffer tape, and hammers. How hard could a bike be? I got it going, more by luck than judgement. I struggled badly that year. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember the bike. I spent the summer trying to find my feet again, digging by day and restoring the bike in the evenings. I sprayed it navy blue. I kitted it out with twist-grip shifters, a cartridge bottom bracket, mudguards. I returned to Cambridge in the autumn with a steed of which I could be proud.

I was bitten by the bug. The next summer I acquired a £25 eBay wreck. It turned out to be a 1961 Raleigh Gran Sport. I turned the kitchen into a bike workshop, stayed up deep into the nights watching the Beijing Olympics, then rode off into the sharp East Anglian dawns to dig.

I spent a lot of my final year at university buying, fixing, and riding bikes. In a dim-lit cavern under the car park, a corner of the college bike store became my unofficial stable. The blue Courier was loaned to Jack Barrett. I don’t know what happened to it after that. Maybe it’s still out there on the streets. Cambridge bikes never die: like salmon, they eventually return to the river from whence they came, until the police dredge it and the cycle begins again.

I still have the Gran Sport. The stable is smaller, these days. But the process is the same. An act of renewal: stripping something bare, holding it up to the light, and putting it together in a way that improves its function. Calculating, measuring, estimating, experimenting. Preferably with cricket on the radio.

So this summer, I’ve built my son his first pedal bike. Restored one of my old hacks to its former glory. Fixed my neighbour’s bike, and her son’s. Several colleagues’, too. Buckled wheels, broken spokes, stuck brakes, no brakes, clashing gears, rasping bearings. But I’ve been on the lookout for another bike for me. Something sensible and solid, but with character, on which I can gently recuperate. Walking remains painful and laborious, but on two wheels I am free from the plodding load of each footfall. And I wanted a steed which I — knight in grease-stained armour — could rescue, even whilst my own health is suffering. Mechanic, heal thyself. Or something.

A blurry advert for a Raleigh 10-speed took me to Bromsgrove. There I met Rod, a retired teacher. He bought this bike new — couldn’t remember when. A bit of bicycle archaeology yields a date: the serial number begins ‘NK3′: built in Nottingham, in July, in a year ending in 3.  Though the styling is achingly 70s, that assumption doesn’t fit the components: the cranks suggest early 80s. Corroborating evidence comes from an ’83’ stamp on the Maillard hubs. It’s a Raleigh Medale, a model to make vintage bike connoisseurs shudder. A ‘gas-pipe special’, made from clunky, heavy steel. It’s not fast, but it’s solid.

Deeply unfashionable even when new, it seems oddly out-of-time. That sense is compounded by the condition. It still has the original brake blocks, rubber set to concrete with the passage of 35 years. The tyres, too, are as they left the factory. Slung beneath the top tube is an alloy pump, a protective cardboard washer still snug around its waist. And perched proudly on the handlebars is an analogue ‘Huret’ speedometer, red needle at the foot of a dial that optimistically tops out at 40mph. Fitted from new, Rod tells me. The odometer in the centre reads 358.

Raleigh Medale 1983

358 miles in 35 years. It has lived longer than me, this machine, but averaged just 10 miles a year. In this case, the old adage is reversed: it’s not the mileage, it’s the years that have taken their toll. Grease has dried up, rubber perished, and chrome pitted. It’s not been serviced — I doubt it’s even been cleaned — since it rolled out of the Nottingham factory gates.

I take it down the road. It’s like riding an agitated spider. The rattles come from all the wrong places. It yaws and screeches and shudders like the hulk of an old ship in a hurricane. The headset wobbles. The bearings grumble. But I love it, this Medale. And it doesn’t take much to get it running smooth and true: strip, clean, grease, repeat. Some new rubber, and a bit of gentle fettling. Heavy, unfashionable, pedestrian, it nonetheless has a quiet dignity. “With care”, it seems to say, “I’ll keep pottering on for another 35 years yet”. And that solidity, right now, is comforting.

1983 Raleigh Medale

The 1983 Raleigh Medale, after a bit of TLC

Eugenics: the sins of the father

Here follows a tale of a man I can no longer admire.

Flower Thomas (F. T.) Spackman, F.G.S. (1856-1931) looms large in the annals of Worcester’s learned societies. In the early 20th century, he published widely on natural history, geology, and archaeology. He was an energetic field investigator, and wrote an impressive catalogue of The Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings of Worcester. A fellow of the Royal Geological Society, he had a particular interest in prehistoric worked flint, an interest I share. And he was the Hon. Secretary of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club, a respected society that still exists today. He spent his working life as a clerk to the Worcester Education Committee. I discovered last week that he was also a passionate eugenicist.

I’ve been working on the history of local Ice Age collections. Sophie, an undergraduate student, is helping us to unpick these tangled networks of knowledge. She found a key paper in the Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club: a talk on prehistoric stone tools given by Worcester Museum curator W. H. Edwards. It references Spackman’s recent work, so we turned to the index. And there, among his many contributions, was an entry: Spackman, FT… Eugenics 185.

The paper on Eugenics sits between a treatise on salmon and a discussion of the water quality of the River Severn. It was read during a meeting at the Victoria Institute, home of the City Art Gallery and Museum, on Thursday, 25th January 1912. It opened with the Chairman, Mr Carleton Rea, making an addition to the botanic record of the county: a specimen of Vicia orobus (wood bitter-vetch). I mention this to highlight the banality of it all. This is not a backstreet rabble-rouser frothing on the stump; it is a congregation of naturalists: gentlemen and scholars.

Spackman takes the stand. He begins by recounting his experiences with ‘defective’ children. He talks of the heredity of undesirable traits, highlights the work of Francis Galton, and discusses key principles of Eugenics: “the project of producing a well-bred race – a race good in physique, intellect, and morals”. Then follows a warning: the birthrate of the “superior classes… [from which] the world recruits its pioneers, the first rate men” is dangerously low, whereas that of the “unfit” is alarmingly high.

He then takes aim at charity and philanthropy, who are accused of:

“aiding and abetting the feeble-minded and criminals by finding them homes… instead of, as at one time, passively ridding the country of degenerates by allowing them to die because they could not fight the competitive battle of life…”

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-1913, Vol. 5, p.187.

Then, for a moment, the tone is conciliatory, before rising to ardent patriotism. He appears, here, to be quoting Karl Pearson:

“Do I therefore call for less human sympathy?… Not for a moment; we cannot go back a single step in the evolution of human sympathy. But I demand that all sympathy and charity shall be organised and guided into paths where they will promote racial efficiency, and not lead us straight towards national shipwreck.” ibid. p.187-8

Lengthy case studies follow, demonstrating the cost to the national purse of looking after the degenerate. Various approaches are discussed; Spackman quotes — and seems sympathetic to — Dr Saleeby‘s opinion that:

“Nature has no choice; if she is to avert the coming of the unfit race she must summarily extinguish its potential ancestor, but we can prohibit the reproduction of his infirmity whilst doing all we can for the individual life.” ibid. p.189

“Doing all we can”, however, does not entail the sort of medical treatment of the vulnerable that we might expect. Instead, Spackman argues:

“You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear… in spite of environmental factors, children remain what they are born.” ibid. p.190

There is no redemption for the children of degenerates, in Spackman’s eyes. How, then, to approach the problem?

“Proposals are made for segregating the unfit, for establishing labour colonies, and for obtaining powers of detention of the lower class of defectives for life.” ibid. p.191

And then comes perhaps the most shocking passage. Having led the audience down the dark routes through this thorny problem, Spackman launches into his concluding remarks:

“But this paper is concerned only with theory and suggestion. The time is not yet ripe for putting into practice any of the sterner measures proposed for stemming the tide of racial deterioration, with the single exception of the permanent segregation and detention of the lower class of defectives.” ibid. p.191

“Sterner measures”. “The time is not yet ripe.” By 1912, the time was ripe for practices such as compulsory sterilisation,  which had already begun in a number of US states. Given that detention and forced labour camps for entire sections of the population evidently fall within the range of measures he considers on the more moderate end of the spectrum, it’s hard to fathom what Spackman has in mind. We know, with hindsight, what happens when you look into sterner measures, having begun by incarcerating large swathes of undesirables. But Spackman never had to deal with that realisation; he died in 1931.

The evening concludes with a discussion, and takes an even darker turn – a twist that paints Spackman as a man consumed by contradiction:

“The Chairman stated that he belonged to quite another school, namely those who believed in the lethal chamber and the survival of the fittest, whilst the modern school of namby-pamby philanthopists seemed to desire the survival of the degenerates and their offspring.” ibid. p.192

Something curious follows. Spackman, possibly startled by this open statement of murderous intent, launches into a defence of the achievements of the efforts to alleviate poverty in the city:

“In reply, Mr Spackman said that more was being done for the amelioration of the lot of children than had ever been attempted before… food for those children who would otherwise not get a sufficient supply was being provided by the Municipality… children were no longer to be allowed to become debilitated or diseased simply because their parents might be too poor or too indifferent… [therefore] there had been a general uplifting all round” ibid. p.192

In other words, if you improve children’s environment and alleviate the effects of poverty, they respond well. This directly and emphatically contradicts his statement, just a few minutes earlier, that “children remain what they are born.”

The meeting wasn’t well attended, by the society’s standards: just eight people were present. It may just have been a particularly inclement January evening. It is possible that some stayed away in disgust at the subject matter: eugenics certainly had vocal critics in the intellectual communities of the day.

The science behind eugenics doesn’t stack up. It overestimates the ability of selective breeding to remove deleterious traits. It underestimates the role of the environment, particularly the crucial early years of childhood development. And limiting genetic diversity is not a good outcome for the evolutionary fitness of a population, however much you may admire the resulting moral fortitude.

Eugenics does not begin or end in a labour camp or in a sterilisation programme. Eugenics gained traction and continues to prosper because it claims to identify reasonable problems that tap into certain perceptions. Looking after people who are sick, disabled, or troubled, is difficult. It costs money. We all want a healthy population, don’t we? And conditions that adversely affect health or prospects… we’d all like to see them minimised, wouldn’t we? That seems desirable. And we’d like there to be more smart, healthy people – people like us…

But without a guiding set of humanitarian values, that sound utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ leads, inexorably, to the tyranny of the majority. Especially if, like Spackman, you place yourself at the pinnacle of human progress.

This story does not end on that January night. The figure of Spackman has been haunting me for a week, consuming every spare hour. A man whose passion for natural history, geology, and archaeology I share and had admired. 106 years to the day after Spackman’s address, I too was out giving a lecture to a local society. I often pass his house: a modest Victorian terrace, and climb the steps of the Victoria Institute where the meeting was held. I found myself wondering if he had a family. I looked, and found his son: Flower Stephen (F.S.) Spackman, born 1890. What did he learn from his father?

In 1911, F.S. was serving as a Corporal in the 3rd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. He must subsequently have emigrated to Canada, for at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He signed up on October 26th 1914 at Saskatoon, listing his occupation as ‘student’. I can’t imagine what he went through over the next four years. He’s pictured here, 3rd from the left, front row: a Company Sergeant-Major in No. 4 Company, 28th (Northwest) Battalion. That rank — responsible for welfare, discipline and organisation of over 200 men — must have been a heavy burden for a 24-year-old. In July 1916 he received a commission in the Worcestershire Regiment. Soon after, he was wounded on The Somme.

He survived the war, and stayed in England to continue his studies, graduating from St John’s College Cambridge in 1921. He entered the priesthood. From 1929-52, he served as Vicar of Marple. He was an army cadet instructor in Cheshire from 1948 until 1955, and held the post of Canon Emeritus at Chester Cathedral at the time of his death in 1967. But where was he in the 1920s? His obituary notice notes that he was “formerly principal of the Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia”Canadian records revealed that he was living in Alert Bay in 1928. St Michael’s Indian Residential School, shown at Alert Bay on this map, was built in 1929, expanding a school originally established in 1882. F.S. appears to have been principal of the earlier institution, returning to England when the new facility was built. He is listed as having 44 boys and 39 girls in his care in this extraordinary document: the 1925 Annual Report of the Department for Indian Affairs.

The Indian Residential Schools were appalling manifestations of colonial zeal. Their goal was the transformation of the savage child into a civilised adult. Schooling was compulsory. Children were forbidden from speaking their language, or from any expression of native identity. Upon graduating, many returned, lost and alienated, to communities and families with whom they could no longer even converse. The school at Alert Bay closed in 1975, and was finally demolished in 2015. Pauline Alfred, a pupil, recounts a system in which — stripped of her name — she was reduced to a number: 564. The ramifications of these children’s experiences echo down the generations: reflected in cycles of trauma and abuse carried forward (see, for instance, this paper by Elias et. al., 2012).

“…it is clear that Indian Residential Schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on Indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done. We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy.

Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities. The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they suffered is well-documented.”

Response of the Churches to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015

There were inherent contradictions in the Spackmans’ beliefs and actions. Both men were adherents to an ideology that placed their own birthright at the pinnacle of human advancement. But F.T. — having made the case for hereditary degeneracy — talks of his work for the “amelioration of the lot of the poor”. And in tracing the history of F.S., I came across a curious letter to The Times, dated 15th March 1939, reproduced in Volume 2 of Major Matthews’ Early Vancouver. It professes a concern for indigenous culture that is hypocritically at odds with his professional involvement in suppressing it:

You published on March 13 an Illustration of a very interesting Totem from the West Coast of British Columbia. But why is it described as the work of “Siwash” Indians? During my residence among these Indians I was never able to locate any tribe known officially by this name. On the contrary, if a Coast Indian was called a “Siwash” he resented it… “Siwash” is often used by white men on the West Coast (frequently contemptuously), but never by Indians themselves. Hence it is difficult to understand why it is sometimes used by scientific writers in England. Your article states that this particular Totem came from “the northern part of Vancouver Island.” The Indians who inhabit these parts are sub-tribes of the once-powerful Kwaguitl (or Kwawkewith) Confederacy. If we could know the exact place from which the Totem came it would be possible to name the tribe. There is one other interesting feature about it. The Kwaguitls usually carve the Thunder Bird with wings outspread. Folded wings are usual among the tribes farther north.

The Rev. F.S. Spackman,

Vicar of Marple, Cheshire: formerly Principal of the Indian Residential Schools, Alert Bay, B.C.

We stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. And the uncomfortable truth is that I found much to admire in both men. The humble clerk in a world dominated by gentlemen, whose boundless energy and considerable intellectual ability helped to lay the foundations of archaeology in Worcester. And the soldier-priest with his interest in indigenous identity, who rose from the ranks to become a canon. I’m painfully aware that my sympathy towards them is a product of the parallels between my life and theirs. These conversations are needed, not just about the ‘great men’ of empire commemorated in statues, but about the people we encounter and value in local histories and family stories. It is tempting to focus the debate on an abstract dichotomy: should a prominent statue stay or go? Should a civic hall be renamed? But these issues are personal. The actions of those to whom I feel connected blighted the lives of people whose stories I can watch on YouTube.

Ironically, the conflicted Spackmans — firm believers that character was born, not made — were products of their time and their environment. They learnt to worship at the altar of their own values: values predicated on a flawed science and a sense of cultural superiority. I seek to put them in human context, not to excuse their actions, but to understand how such a worldview spread like wildfire through the drawing rooms of middle England, and how it may do so again. The story of the Spackmans illustrates the transition in all its horror: the “theory and suggestion” of the father’s lecture was played out in his son’s career; communities were ripped apart: innocent children were the victims. Words and ideas are never just theory and suggestion: they lodge, they take root; they have the potential to travel halfway around the world and destroy lives. I leave the last word to a pupil at St Michael’s, who suffered for a decade within the system that F.T. Spackman’s ideology inspired, and F.S. Spackman’s mission carried out:

“We should no longer be defined by that building and that history, otherwise we’ll be doomed to pass on the same characteristics to the next generation.”

Chief Robert Joseph, 2015

If you’d like to read F.T. Spackman’s paper for yourself, it can be found in the Level 2 Local Studies Library of The Hive, open 7 days a week, 08:30-22:00: Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-13, Vol. 5 (L506). It is a fragile volume, and I’ve been unable to scan it. But I did manage to photograph the pages, so you can download this slightly wonky PDF (8mb): Spackman_1912_Eugenics.

In The Hive, you’ll also find a history of the club which offers some background to the characters mentioned here: The Lookers Out of Worcestershire, by Mary Munslow Jones (L506.04244). It does not mention Eugenics.

Thanks to all the friends and colleagues who’ve helped me shape this story over the past week. For more information on my work on the history of archaeology and natural history in Worcestershire, visit: https://iceageworcestershire.com/ 

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists' Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

My 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 discover the huge range of things archaeologists do in their day-to-day work. The Day of Archaeology website now holds thousands of posts on every archaeological topic imaginable. Explore them all at dayofarchaeology.com. I had a day off, but it’s hard to avoid archaeology, so you can read what I got up to (including the strange woodland structures pictured below) via this link:

Travelling in time | Day of Archaeology

Weathered 'tree-throws' in Hampshire woodland

Weathered ‘tree-throws’ in Hampshire woodland

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) Rob Hedge pencil sketch

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 motorway in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult female Woolly Mammoth, about 20-25 years old.

She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her remains settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during the construction of a water pumping station in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.

Mammoths evoke images of icy wastes and snow-strewn plains, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits tells us that Millicent lived in conditions similar to today’s British climate, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The area around the Strensham pool was probably marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent would have inhabited a landscape filled with a menagerie of other mammals: from familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, to the more exotic woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena.

Millicent the mammoth is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region. Over the next 18 months, I’ll be working on a project to tell these stories. We’ll examine what they teach us about where we’ve come from and how our landscapes were shaped. We’ll also be looking at how our understanding of deep time was shaped by early discoveries, and asking questions about how we define ourselves as a species. Look out for more at explorethepast.co.uk and researchworcestershire.wordpress.com soon.

Lost Landscapes

We cut the cross-dyke and slant down to the plateau’s edge, barely pausing to note the ancient boundary. Whose territory do we trespass upon? Which ancient powers do we transgress as we file through the narrow gap?

Jonathan's Hollow, Long Mynd: Pencil and crayon sketch

Jonathan’s Hollow, Long Mynd

Sheep pick at the heather-strewn slopes. Far to the east there’s a smudge of spring sun. Over the Long Mynd steel-grey cloud drifts and bunches.

We are the only people in sight. For a few minutes it seems that we are a world away, explorers of a terra nullius, all angst swept deep to the valley floor.

Then we turn. More walkers appear. We plot our descent through clustered contours to the small, slatted bridge over the stream.

Cross-dyke: ancient earthworks, often located in upland areas, probably constructed as boundary/territorial markers and dating from the Middle Bronze Age to early Iron Age (c1500-500BC).

Long Mynd

 

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire. Pencil sketch, Rob Hedge

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire

A sketch to reflect a mood. Dusk falls over Porthgain harbour, a place as fine as any to watch the sun sink. It leaves a westerly smudge. The brick hoppers stand sentinel, but they are empty now. Holidaymakers and fishermen hunch up against the evening breeze, and watch the light fade, willing it to hold a little longer.

It’ll be a long, cold night.

Dusk

Boats against the current

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The famous last line from The Great Gatsby has been rattling around my head recently.

We live in interesting times. And much hinges on the past, on the stories we tell about who we were and how we got here. My job is to explore things from the past, to build narratives from those Old Things, to apply retrospective significanceand in doing so, to illuminate the present.

This matters. “Who controls the past”, wrote Orwell, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

But these past few months, my Old Things have been mute.

There’s a fine cartoon by Tom Toro: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”.

But I have written before that the past is never repeated; besides, there is no such thing as ‘the past’. And to assert that situation x is equal to situation y gives an easy response to those who disagree. Conditions are different, they will say, the comparison is not accurate. The test is not whether the analogy is a perfect fit, but whether it is useful.

Yet my Old Things: my potsherds, the soil beneath my fingers, the bones I lift from the cold earth… all are silent. They tell me nothing, offer no balm for these times of tumult.

I have a difficult relationship with my own past. I am reluctant to subject it forensic study, perhaps because I am not fond of the version of myself that I find there.

The same can be said of societies. We like our narratives clear, and resist challenges. Revisionism has become a pejorative term. We do not like to see our imagined foundations undermined. Historical narratives are attractive because they offer the illusion of permanence.

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,

The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.”    Edward Thomas, Early One Morning

We’re comfortable with visions of our past selves that emphasise an honest struggle, a purity of ideals, identities, and common purpose.

But national narratives are prone to conflating two different visions of the past: remembered glories and ideas of longevity. A case in point is the phrase “we have always been”: you’ll see it everywhere. A fortuitous set of circumstances for one nation at a point in time is not a replicable model. For all our accomplishments, there is nothing innately superior about the British or American psyche, nor are we inevitably destined to prosper. The wave we rode through much of the 19th and 20th centuries has dashed itself against the breakwater of history, and much as the likes of Trump and Farage may tell us that we can go back, it is gone. I fervently hope we can find a new path through the surf, but history is rarely kind to those who would seek to slavishly recreate past glories.

And still my Old Things are silent, and Gatsby echoes around my head. I wander, and I draw. I beat on, to a small village church.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Alfrick, Worcestershire

St Mary Magdalene, Alfrick

It’s old, a muddle of mismatched masonry. The porch leans, the roof curves and the deep-sunk windows peer from behind choking coniferous fronds. Its original form is lost in countless rebuilds, its style a collision of architectural trends. I don’t agree with much of what’s said within it, but I’m fond of it. It makes no sense in isolation; it is part of a network, sharing resources and visions. In its ideal form, it is a place of sanctuary, welcome and tolerance. It’s not a bad analogy for a country.

Every step you take through the churchyard draws you deeper; your tread taps the resting places of all those who passed before and lie there still. The ground itself bulges skyward with the sheer volume of burials. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. You cannot escape it. So, embrace it; history has much wise counsel to offer.

There are cyclical patterns at play. We are caught in an eddy, disturbing dormant silts of self-interest, and snagging on the rotten branches of those who promise a free pass to a better life back upstream. No such promised land exists, nor has ever done so. 

Above all, be critical. History is not whatever you make of it. Not all histories are equal. Over the next few years, many will invoke histories to warn or promise. To beat on through the mire will require effort and struggle, and not merely the passing of time. The course of human history does not run smooth and straight.

Bronze Age pots & Golden Rules

On Monday afternoon, the story of an extraordinary discovery began to unfold, at the bottom of a damp pit in a field in Broadway, southeast Worcestershire.

There was little about pit [1412] to distinguish it from the hundreds of other features across the site. A dark brown oval stain about 1.5m in diameter, it only revealed its secrets as archaeologist Jamie reached the base, and caught the first glimpse of what turned out to be a beautiful early Bronze Age ‘Beaker’.

Early Bronze Age Beaker being excavated, Broadway, Worcestershire

First glimpse of the Beaker

I’ll be writing more on this discovery over the coming months. But for now I’d like to explore how it was found and excavated, and why we broke a golden rule.

In archaeological language, pit [1412] is a discrete feature, separated from its physical neighbours and contemporary features by the sands and gravels that lie below the levels of human impact. This pit was formed by the act of digging a hole, cut deep into the underlying gravel. What we see, therefore, is the stain where the fill – the material that went back into that hole to fill it in – differs from the material that came out.

The approach usually taken for a feature of this kind is to half-section it. This involves stringing out a line, usually along the longest axis, and excavating 50% of the fill up to a clean vertical edge – the section – which is then inspected, photographed, drawn and surveyed. This gives us an opportunity to unpick exactly how the feature came to be filled in. Was it filled in rapidly with the material that had been dug out, or with refuse? Did it silt up over decades or centuries with rich organic silts? Are there signs that it was re-cut or cleaned out? It also enables us to make a decision on a feature’s significance. Is it worth excavating the other half? Or, with time and budgets limited, would that effort be better spent on another feature?

In the case of [1412], there are some unusual elements that suggest there may have been several episodes of activity. More on that in a future post! But as Jamie reached the base of the pit, he spotted a chunk of decorated pottery, located right in the vertical section. After careful cleaning, it was clear that this was the base of a prehistoric pot. WhatsApp messages pinged back and forth from site to office, and as the horizontal bands and chevron patterns were revealed, it started to resemble an early Bronze Age Beaker.

Jamie and site director Richard instantly realised the significance. Although there was no trace of any bone, Beakers are almost always found associated with burials, and are often accompanied by specific types of artefacts. I fired off a list to watch out for – barbed and tanged arrowheads, flint knives, stone bracers… Jamie carefully cleaned around the protruding pot, and recorded the section.

Recording section of Beaker pit

Recording the pit (beaker visible in the section) as the groundwater rises

Now came the tricky part. Conditions were wet, and the groundwater rising. Exposed, the pot was vulnerable. Only a couple of hours of light remained. Richard and Jamie still had no idea if the pot was intact, how large or delicate it was, or even whether we were just looking at redeposited fragment that had found its way into the pit from elsewhere.

Passing judgement on each other’s excavation techniques is something of a universal pastime among archaeologists. And field archaeology has its golden rules, drummed into every undergraduate student or willing volunteer on their first digs. “Never stand on a trowel-cleaned area”. “Trowel with the edge, not the point”. “Always work from the known to the unknown”. And crucially, “Never go digging into the section”. Don’t chase the root, or the bone or the fancy bit of pottery – leave it in section, record it, then it can come out in good time when you dig the rest of the feature from the top.

The video we posted on Monday showed Jamie cutting back into the section to expose the extent of the pot. Some people were horrified, and vocally so. Some doubted our competence, others our ethics. We broke that golden rule. Why?

Every competent archaeologist knows the rules. But a really good archaeologist knows exactly when to break them. The section had already been carefully recorded. Faced with rising water, fading light and a delicate vessel of unknown condition and size, Jamie and Richard chose to dig around the pot. They established its position and size, and found it to be so delicate that excavating down from the top was likely to damage it further. They protected it, then carefully removed half of the remaining fill of the pit, leaving the pot exposed on the base. It was then photographed and surveyed, before being expertly lifted, held together by the claggy soil contained within.

Beaker vessel in situ within pit

With water bailed out and overlying soil removed, the Beaker is exposed for the first time

Sometimes it pays to break the rules. In having the experience and confidence to adapt, the excavators were able to safely recover a stunning find, and record the position of an array of other artefacts: arrowheads, knives, an antler implement… it has all the hallmarks of a Beaker burial, but no bones. Why? We hope to find out. Watch this space!

[For more information as the excavation and analysis progresses, keep an eye on the blog, facebook page & twitter]

Early Bronze Age beaker after lifting, Broadway, Worcestershire

Beaker safely lifted