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.