This is a drawing of a drum made 15,000 years ago from the skull of a mammoth, in what is now Ukraine.

Photograph of sketchbook page showing a pen and watercolour pencil illustration of a mammoth shull decorated with lines and dots
Illustration of mammoth-skull drum from Mezhyrich, Ukraine

There’s a small village in central Ukraine, where the Rosava and Ros rivers meet. From here the Ros flows east, joining the mighty Dnieper about 10km downstream.

Mezhyrich has a population of under a thousand. It is one among hundreds of villages in the province of Cherkasy Oblast, and I doubt if I would ever have heard of it if a local farmer hadn’t wanted a bigger cellar.

He started digging in 1965, and found he’d bitten off more than he could chew when he encountered the jawbone of a mammoth.

This is not, in itself, a remarkable discovery in the loess soils of central Ukraine. However, it soon became apparent that it was stacked, upside down, within another mammoth jaw. And another.

Excavations revealed circular walls, 5m in diameter, constructed entirely of interlocking mammoth jaws. Socketed into the tops of the low walls were dozens of tusks, arching up to form a roof and porch.

Image of a Mezhyrich hut from Dolní Věstonice museum. The mammoth drum is inside the porch.

The remains of at least 95 mammoths were represented, bones scavenged from carcasses and hauled miles to this spot. I don’t know if you’ve ever lifted mammoth bones. I have. They weigh a ton. Four of these structures have been found at Mezhyrich.

There are quite a few such sites in this part of the world, most dating to the later stages of the last Ice Age. Some are colossal, and show no sign of having been lived-in. But the Mezhyrich huts had hearths, and the detritus of everyday life: knapped flint; bone needles.

Mezhyrich lay within a huge area of Ice Age tundra known as the ‘mammoth steppe’. At its peak, this colossal biome stretched around the globe from Atlantic shore to Atlantic shore.

15,000 years ago, you could have walked from my door in the west of England to Mezhyrich without getting your feet wet or leaving the lush plains of herbs and grasses: home to the mammoth and the humans who followed them.

What makes Mezhyrich really special is the artefacts found within that first structure – among them objects carried hundreds of kilometres. Amber ornaments. An ivory plaque, inscribed with what’s thought to be a map.

Pen and watercolour pencil illustration of the Mezhyrich mammoth-skull drum
Pen and watercolour pencil illustration of the Mezhyrich mammoth-skull drum

And the mammoth-skull drum. It lay at the entrance to the hut. Battered surfaces spoke of frequent use. On the high forehead, there were enigmatic red ochre designs. There are various theories about what they mean: one is that they depict flames and sparks of a fire.

Flames. Sparks. What would those people say, to see this land on fire on an unimaginable scale? What would they — who had no need of national borders — make of one country’s desire to crush its neighbour underfoot?

Their world was changing, too. Did they know? The mammoth steppe was entering a long, slow decline. Within a few thousand years, the mammoths were gone.

Today, one of the structures is reconstructed in the National Museum of Natural History. Another was partly excavated in the 1970s. In the village, there’s a small sheet-metal barn; inside, a neat white picket fence; and inside that, you are stepping back 15 thousand years.

A 2018 summer school hosted excavators from Ukrainian and French universities. That year, we built our own little homage to the Ukrainian mammoth-bone huts in Worcester Museum. We filled it with blackboards for children to draw their own cave art. Books to fire their imaginations.

Children’s book corner in the style of a mammoth-bone hut, Worcester Museum Lost Landscapes exhibition 2018

I sat down inside and read to my son. I told him that 700 generations ago, children curled up with their families and told stories in huts like these, in a place called Ukraine. I told him I’d take him one day.

We have not made it to Mezhyrich. Not yet. But one fine summer’s day I hope to walk around the village, step into the little barn, and listen to the chatter of students as they bring the hubbub of voices and laughter back to the mammoth-bone hut.

I have been lost for words of late, to see this part of the world and its people— whose history is dear to my heart — suffering so terribly. And there seems little I can do.

But I can draw. So, if you like the Mezhyrich mammoth skull, I’ve put some designs in a Redbubble store:

Proceeds will go to the Red Cross through the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian appeal. If you’d like to make an offer for the original, message me through the contact form. Take care. Slava Ukraini.

Mammoth-skull drum against a blue sky and yellow steppe-grass background
Mammoth-skull drum against a blue sky and yellow steppe-grass background.


The best English language online source for info on Mezhyrich is Don’s Maps, which has pictures of lots of reconstruction and artefacts: 

And for more on recent work there, see: 

A letter to Robin Walker

Forgive the deviation from the normal fare of archaeology and history. But sometimes politics becomes personal, and inescapable, and I am angry. A letter to @WalkerWorcester:

Rt Hon Robin Walker MP

Dear Mr Walker,

I’ve never written to my MP before. It’s not that I’m apathetic. It’s just that I’ve never believed it would change anything. My wife writes to you. At length. And, to be fair, you always respond. But her latest letter was brief. She’s got a lot going on. Her father died last week.

He’d spent much of the last couple of years under treatment for cancer. So we were careful, Mr Walker. We stuck — religiously — to the rules, for fear of putting him at risk. We had a birthday party in June 2020, Mr Walker. We sat on separate rugs, in a National Trust garden. We brought our own food. We did not hug. It was one of the few occasions our baby daughter got to meet her grandfather. And even after the rules relaxed, Mr Walker, we were cautious. We did not want to put our family at risk.

Our son was 5 when this all started, Mr Walker. Formative years. So many firsts their grandparents missed. But it seemed like he was on the mend. There’ll be time to catch up after, we thought. Well, Mr Walker, there wasn’t. Because he’s gone. And now, of course, there’s a whole heap of self-doubt. Did we do right? Shouldn’t we have just bent the rules?

Do you see why this matters, Mr Walker? Do you see why this isn’t going to blow over with a non-committal apology and a redacted internal report? Because it’s not just the daily drip of damning evidence that exposes each improbable denial. Your government asked us to make sacrifices. And we did. But it turns out that the Prime Minister was less capable of restraint on his fifty-sixth birthday than my son was on his sixth.

People say you are a decent man, Mr Walker. Politics necessitates compromise. I understand that it is possible to put up with a lot from one’s colleagues if you believe you are serving the wider public interest. But it’s no longer possible to hold your nose above the stench of arrogance and exceptionalism emanating from the heart of your government. The thing about rotten apples, Mr Walker, is that they taint the whole barrel.

Our little private turmoil, and my mounting anger, is mirrored across the city. Most of your constituents will have their own stories of absence and loss. Keep them in mind when you consider this matter, Mr Walker. That’s all I ask. I think you probably know the right course, and I wish you the conviction to take it.

With best wishes,

Rob Hedge.

Update: To his credit, Robin Walker was quick to respond, and in the interests of balance his reply is copied below

Thank you for your recent correspondence which I read with the greatest of sympathy. My
thoughts are with you and Hannah in respect of your late father in law. I lost my own father to
cancer soon after being elected and have also been taking extra precautions through the
pandemic as a result of a relative who is undergoing chemotherapy. I entirely appreciate the
difficult choices that you and your family have been having to make and therefore the added
concern that this might generate about some of the media coverage of events in

I understand and share the anger felt by people across the country at allegations of
gatherings in Downing Street during the pandemic. So many of us have made extraordinary
personal sacrifices throughout the pandemic. We followed the rules to protect ourselves, our
loved ones, and our communities. I know for many people, it is deeply upsetting to think that
anyone in Downing Street, who was involved in setting the rules, did not follow them.
The Prime Minister, in comments to the House of Commons, has accepted that there were
things that they did not get right and has taken responsibility for this. He has offered his
heartfelt apologies. I made clear at that time that I thought the Prime Minister was right to
apologise. A number of constituents have contacted me about this matter and I have made
their views known to my colleagues in government.
It is right that this should be properly investigated and I welcome the ongoing investigation
into these allegations which will establish all the facts and report back as soon as possible.
This is an independent investigation and is being led by Sue Gray, second permanent
secretary at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I want to reassure

you that the Terms of Reference for this investigation make clear that wherever there are
credible allegations of gatherings, these may be looked at. It has been confirmed that this
includes the allegations relating to November and December 2020 as well as 15th and 20th
May 2020. The Government has been clear that if wrongdoing is established, then
appropriate disciplinary action will be taken. I await the outcome of the inquiry at which point
the Prime Minister will make a statement in Parliament.
In the meantime it is important that I as Worcester’s MP remain focused on all of the things
that matter to the people of Worcester. These priorities are investing in jobs, growing our
economy, supporting our treasured NHS and improving our local schools. I recently made
the announcement that schools in Worcestershire will next year receive a £23 million
increase in core schools funding (6 per cent in per pupil terms) and a significantly higher
increase for high needs funding which rises by £10 million to a total of £78 million. Work is
underway on the £15 million upgrade to the Emergency Department at the Worcestershire
Royal as well as a much needed expansion of bed capacity at the hospital, and last month
was the tenth month in a row that unemployment fell in the constituency.

I can assure you that when the report is published I will consider it carefully but I do not think
it is right to draw conclusions based on a series of selective leaks to the media. I recognise
that there is a great deal of concern about these matters and I respect your strongly held
views. I know from my work as a Minister, the vast majority of which was done remotely
during the period of lockdown, that ministers and officials in all parts of government were
working hard to protect both lives and livelihoods and the type of events that have been
alleged to have happened in the various leaks and briefings, neither reflect my own
experience or that of any colleagues with whom I have discussed them. I do think it is right
therefore to get to the bottom of what actually did happen before sitting in judgement on
Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding this matter and please accept my
condolences for your family’s loss.

Yours sincerely

Robin Walker MP


Inktober is an annual drawing challenge: a drawing a day, throughout October, following a particular set of prompts. This year, I followed Dr Katherine Cook’s archink series, each the title of an archaeology-related book. Some of the sketches discuss the books themselves, others explore concepts or objects loosely inspired by the title, related to my work and research.

I hope you find them interesting and/or informative. If you’d like to use or adapt any for your own purposes, feel free. You can save images from the gallery below, or scroll to the foot of the post to download a PDF of them all. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Weathering (ano)the(r) storm

It’s been a long time since I last wrote. Forgive me; there’s been a lot going on. But this is something that matters to me. The University of Worcester has decided to cease the teaching of archaeology, and to make its archaeologists redundant.

For nine years, I’ve worked for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, in The Hive: a hub that houses the University of Worcester’s library. There’s rarely been a time during that period when our service hasn’t been under threat. There will, no doubt, be further hard times ahead once the financial impact of COVID is felt by local authorities, a year or two down the line. But right now, higher education is the canary in the coal mine. It is the university staff who face redundancy, and Worcester’s woes are not unique.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the University of Worcester’s staff and students. Statistically, their results are impressive: a student satisfaction rate of 100%, and one of the most impressive graduate employment records around. But I believe that the best measure of the success of a department is the quality of its students. Many have passed through my door, eager and willing to learn the rudiments of finds work. Plenty of my colleagues began their careers at Worcester, and I have encountered many more of their graduates elsewhere in the sector. I can honestly say I’ve never met a bad one. And that is entirely down to the passion and care of their brilliant staff; their level of personal investment in their students should be the envy of larger departments.

Looking back, is there cause for regret? Undoubtedly. Our input into the department dwindled to a trickle over the years, a casualty of austerity. The Council could no longer subsidise teaching work, and the Uni wouldn’t pay. My own aspirations for closer relations were often dashed against twin cliffs of University and Council bureaucracy. But in the last few years, a new appetite for collaboration has gathered pace, centred around an interest in the unremarkable: projects to peel back the layers of life in and around Worcester across millennia, through the domestic detritus recovered from fieldwalking and test-pitting. The sort of deeply unfashionable work through which a university could, if it so wished, become enmeshed in the lives and stories of the city it calls home.

But Worcester, it seems, has little time for such niceties. In its boundless ambition, wrapped up in a programme of acquisition and expansion, and of gleaming new facilities, archaeology has no place. Enrollment had been suspended, pending a restructure of the courses. But only a week ago, I was chatting to two of the staff about their efforts to mould a programme that the university could support. Now the axe has fallen. No right of appeal, no lengthy consultation, no redeployment.

A demographic dip notwithstanding, there has been no long term decline in the numbers of prospective students. Looking ahead, recruitment will be more challenging. But the closure of Worcester is not an indication of a subject in terminal decline. Rather, it is the result of a market-driven approach to Higher Education that is bent on weeding out the less profitable. Between them, Worcester’s staff have dedicated more than a century to teaching and researching archaeology. A market that cannot find a place for that expertise is not a market that is functioning effectively.

The loss of archaeology at Worcester has bigger ramifications for the sector than student numbers alone suggest. It has always been a department that attracted a much more diverse demographic than most. It was a haven for mature students; for local people with caring responsibilities; for the first in their families to enter higher education; for those with huge potential but fewer academic qualifications; for the neurodiverse; and for anyone who longed to learn more about how the world beneath their feet shaped the world we inhabit today. In a profession that is unhealthily homogeneous, it has been a force for social mobility. And for a profession that struggles to train and retain staff, it has been an invaluable source of passionate and capable archaeologists. Our subject is all about understanding human behaviour: Worcester has consistently taken the life experience of its students and spun it into a web of expertise that has enriched our sector.

It is often argued that archaeology is important because it underpins the planning system. No archaeologists = no-one to complete the requisite surveys or excavations in advance of development. This argument is predicated on acceptance of the existing system. If your aim is deregulation of the planning system, then a shortage of archaeologists is no longer an issue to be tackled, but a means to an end. Much is also made of archaeology’s STEM credentials, in efforts to cater to the government’s stated preference for such qualifications, but to my mind the beauty of archaeology is its position at the crossroads between science and the humanities, with all the resulting tension. Staff shortages and STEM credibility have their place in the list of arguments for the importance of archaeology degrees like Worcester’s, but they’re not enough.

So why is archaeology worth fighting for? Well, it’s enormous fun. Honestly. There are few more rewarding things than digging a hole and finding stuff in it. Or piecing together clues to unpick the history of a house. Or pulling together all the evidence to make a map that reveals a landscape in a whole new light. But beyond that, none of the challenges that humanity faces can be solved by shiny tech alone. Archaeology is about understanding how people respond, change, adapt. How they react to crises. How they persist, endure, or thrive.

Much of the University of Worcester’s rapid property acquisition in recent years has been on the northern outskirts of the Roman town. It’s driven welcome regeneration of a tired area, but the University should remember that its growth is — quite literally — built on the city’s archaeology. Excavations on its City Campus site showed that the site was occupied as the town grew in the later 2nd century, buoyed by the flow of revenue from Imperial coffers in exchange for Worcester’s iron. But a century later, it was abandoned. The town shrunk, as the empire descended into a 50-year economic and political crisis, born of its own hubris. There’s probably a lesson in there.

Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site
Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site

Archaeologists: be more visible. Share what you do, hot off the trowel or straight from the screen. I’m rubbish at this – I get so consumed by the work I fail to step back for 5 minutes and share it. I know permissions are a pain, but get it sorted. If it’s too much hassle, hire an outreach officer. Oh, and above all, treat your staff well. Show people there’s a future in this. Otherwise, if this decline continues, we’ll all be pushing wheelbarrows til our knees give out and we’re carted off to a museum ourselves.

And right now? Sign the petition. Make a noise. Show the University of Worcester that you care about the future of our discipline. #SaveArchaeologyAtWorcester

Counting newts and toppling brutes

With much fanfare and a new fatuous 3-word slogan, Boris Johnson announced yesterday… well, very little of substance. Except maybe that the £12 billion funding for housing announced in the budget earlier this year would be stretched over 8 years rather than 5. In case your head is still spinning with the circular brilliance of ‘build build build’, like the figures in an Escher drawing trying to work out how one stops the country and gets off, he also talked about newts. Specifically, he promised that:

“this government will shortly bring forward the most radical reforms to our planning system since the end of the second world war… time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

Unfortunately, as people were quick to point out, it’s not regulation that slows down house building. In 2017-18, planning permission was granted for 382,997 homes, well in excess of the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year. But developers aren’t building them. There’s a comprehensive 2018 report by Sir Oliver Letwin setting out exactly where the issues lie. But Johnson is ripping that up, possibly because it was commissioned by that notoriously partisan body, the… er, Conservative Government.

So why tear up the rulebook? It’s about whose heritage you value. In the same speech, he also said:

“I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

In defending statues and trashing environmental protections, the government’s message is clear: whose heritage matters? Not yours.

The cold edifice of a man who inherited a fortune and bloated it further through the traffic in human lives? Heritage.

The wildflower meadows your grandparents played in? The Roman town whose walls hold the stories of the people who came from across the empire to live, love, and work there? The shop your parents set up; the street you were born on; the dock where your husband’s family first set eyes upon this country? Nah. Bulldoze them. Sweep them away for a cluster of naff executive homes, ready to lie empty as their cheap mortar crumbles because no-one can afford to buy them. Call them Roman Way or Windrush Close, the last faint echoes on the breeze. And who knows, maybe someday a child will dig up a few scattered Roman potsherds and wonder what stood before. Maybe a grandson will stand before a locked gate and peer through the railings, straining for a glimpse of a dock basin before the security guard hustles him along.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot said that “any historical narrative is a bundle of silences”. Whose story gets told? Whose story does not?

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)

Take a look at the statue of Rhodes. Of Colston. Ask yourself, who do these statues represent? Is it you?

Many of you who value the heritage and environmental protections of our existing planning system will also abhor the removal of statues. I’ve written before about statues: how they become a flashpoint, a comfortable symbol to defend because they insulate us from darker and less comfortable contradictions buried in our own local and family histories. But, after all, Colston was Grade 2 listed. If I care about heritage protection, should I not deplore his sudden immersion? No. Heritage is not fossilisation: places are for people. But where will it end, you might ask? It ends when everyone’s stories are told. It ends when the silences in our historical narratives are broken by the voices of people we have marginalised and othered for too long. It ends when we understand how power is distributed unequally. It ends when we expose its roots.

Pencil sketch of Gloucester Docks

Field sketch of Gloucester Docks.

This is Gloucester docks: stunning industrial heritage, and a great example of the collision of heritage, planning, and inequality. They are now a thriving and desirable mix of apartments and commercial development. Their survival and regeneration owes much to the warehouses’ status as listed buildings. But the docks owe their 19th century prosperity to the investment of Samuel Baker and Thomas Philpotts, whose profits came from the backs of slaves; they received £4283 in 1834 (equivalent to £561,000 in today’s prices), in compensation for the freedom of 240 slaves upon abolition. The docks stand as a monument to the tangled, pervasive web of racial inequality, and tell that story in a far more powerful and nuanced fashion than a lump of Bronze on a tall plinth ever could. Baker later went on to purchase Thorngove House, near Grimley. I cycled past it last night, oblivious to that link. I never knew. The roots run deep and wide.

Heritage and environmental regulations are not perfect; there’s room for improvement. But they do put some of the power in the hands of those who would champion the small but valuable corners of our country: the distinctive, the local. The places and the stories that matter to people. The untold stories. They are a brake on the excesses of unchecked profiteering. They are a mechanism through which we are able to fill the gaps, to add voices, to ensure the histories of the extraordinary everyday are told and re-evaluated with each new discovery.

Black Lives Matter. Heritage matters. These are not contradictory statements. It’s the same fight. The same argument for value, respect, and representation. The cold dead stare of a statue and the cold hard cash of unregulated development are two sides of the same coin: they are marks of power, and a signal that, left to its own devices, power cares nothing for people, and nothing for place. Interrogate that power. Hold it to account, for the sake of all whose lives are held in its grip.


At this time of year, I’d usually be at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, getting my annual dose of theory. But this year I can’t make it, due to parenting commitments. I’m sorry to miss it, as it sounds like there have been some brilliant sessions. But I’m following from afar, and reflecting on a funny old year. In the Spring I finally got my knee put back together. As a finds archaeologist it amuses me that my left leg is now partly ceramic! I’ve had some time off, seen many good colleagues made redundant, and gone back to work part-time.

And last month I got a few more letters after my name: MCIfA. Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. I should be delighted. I am, in a way. It’s nice to be recognised by one’s peers, and I put a lot of work into the application. But it comes with a sense of responsibility, too.

It took a lot of work: collate a portfolio; compile a list of over 200 examples of my reports, papers, lectures, and resources; draw up a statement of competence; and update all my professional development records and plans. But I got it done. Almost immediately, I fell into a complete panic. I went through the CIfA yearbook. I looked at all the MCIfAs. Surely I didn’t belong in their company? And I saw all the people I respect and admire who aren’t at that grade. If they weren’t, what right did I have to presume that I belonged? I almost convinced myself that they would reject me, that I should apologise and withdraw my application.

They didn’t reject me. And it is satisfying that a group of people, who don’t know me, took a look at my work and thought I’d earned those letters.

But professionally, archaeological institutions have been mired in controversy lately. Earlier this year, ripples from across the Atlantic were widely discussed in UK archaeological circles. The Society for American Archaeology badly mishandled a situation in which an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual misconduct was permitted to attend their conference. And then, on this side of the pond, came a weekend in which members of the Society of Antiquaries voted against the ejection of a convicted abuser, and a young researcher received an award for her work on sexual harrassment to a soundtrack of laughter from the audience.

Given that our whole discipline is devoted to recognising change in patterns of human behaviour, we’re remarkably myopic when it comes to ourselves. I’ve seen a good many comment pieces on the working life of an archaeologist, but in truth no-one has hit the nail on the head for the British/Irish workforce quite so well as Stuart Rathbone in this article. It rang painfully true, and still does. Many great people, brilliant in many respects but curiously inept in others. Low rates of union membership and employees with little collective bargaining power. And a set of working conditions that bakes-in poor health and precarity, within which abuse can thrive.

It’s not just in commercial archaeology: museums, planning departments, HERs — anywhere you’ll find archaeologists you’ll find a maze of temporary posts, staff ‘acting-up’, recruitment freezes, overwork, and poor pay. There’s a perception among many of my generation that things are, at least, substantially better than they were 30 years ago. That may be true for some. But for the striking MOLA archaeologists, pay in real terms is 30% less than it was in 1989. In my own local authority, pay across most grades has fallen below 1989 levels once you account for inflation. And that’s before you even factor in the cost of housing, which has leapt by 69% above the rate of inflation in that period.

These situations create the spaces in which the rotten fruit can poison the barrel. Power inequalities and precarity lead to chronic under-reporting of abusive behaviour. If your contracts are measured in weeks, you don’t want to rock the boat. Perpetrators of abuse can move freely between organisations without much scrutiny. Academia was once the promised land, to which one might hope to escape to the promise of a healthy salary and a degree of permanence. But, as the striking university staff of the UCU can testify, conditions for the majority of the peripatetic early career academics who carry so much of the universities’ teaching load are every bit as hand-to-mouth as the rest of the sector.

It gladdens my heart to see many organisations investing in staff. There’s a new breed of small, dynamic outfits who recognise that the work they do can only ever be as good as the people they employ to do it; a workforce of archaeologists with security, stability and professional development will move mountains. But too many still view staff as at best a commodity, and at worst an expensive liability.

It feels, in short, like the time is ripe for a new generation to step up and lead. But to be brutally honest, it’s hard work just keeping afloat. Many of my generation of archaeologists have exerted so much just to tread water that the prospect of a battle for the soul of the profession is daunting. I don’t honestly know how long I can afford to stick around, especially with the prospect of workers’ rights joining the bonfire of the environmental protection regulations which underpin much of today’s archaeology sector. There seems little doubt that the government will pursue economic growth through a feast of deregulation. A rising tide raises all ships, the doctrine goes. But as I skirt the floodwaters of the River Severn on my way to work, it’s not much help if you’re holed below the waterline.

Swans on the swollen Severn

Swans on the swollen Severn

But while I’m here, and now I have those letters after my name, I’ve got a responsibility to do what I can to set the tone and set the course for those that come after. There are many who view organisations like CIfA as too compromised, and will not join. That’s a position I respect. But my view is that the culture of an organisation is set by its membership, and if change is to take root, it has to be championed from within.

Join your union. And if you’re one of those people to whom I look up, and you’ve been putting off your CIfA paperwork, dust it off over Christmas. I don’t know how much longer any of us have got in this game, but while we’re here, let’s look out for each other.


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?


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.


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.

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.


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: [accessed 29 April 2018]

↑ 3 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 4 James Gay Sawkins, watercolour, ca. 1852. Public domain. Available at: [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: [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.

↑ 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. [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 15 Jillian Mundy, ‘Remains back in safe hands’, The Koori Mail, 23rd September 2009, p.9

↑ 16 The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 18th July 1865, p.2.

↑ 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) [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. [accessed 25 April 2018]

↑ 24 Paola Totaro, ‘Bringing home the dead so their spirits can rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009. [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: 

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