Porcelain, people and the pride of a city

People & porcelain

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

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

Royal Lily pattern, Flight of Worcester Porcelain, 1788

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

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

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

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

Pride & Planning

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

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

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

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

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

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

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

Showroom, Royal Worcester Porcelain Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From resisted to Resistance: Greenham Common

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

Pencil sketch of Building 280, Greenham Common

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

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

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

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

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

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

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

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

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

But Greenham, I loved. I still do.

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

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

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

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

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

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

MoD sign, GAMA area, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

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

There’s something inspiring about that.

Weathering the storm

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

pit alignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam: SK(698)

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

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

Little ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SK(698)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lyfe soe short

The lyfe soe short the art so long to lerne

Victoria Institute, Worcester 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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