Lost Landscapes

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) Rob Hedge pencil sketch

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

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

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

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

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

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Long Mynd

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

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

Jonathan’s Hollow, Long Mynd

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

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

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

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

Bronze Age pots & Golden Rules

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

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

Early Bronze Age Beaker being excavated, Broadway, Worcestershire

First glimpse of the Beaker

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

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

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

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

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

Recording section of Beaker pit

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

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

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

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

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

Beaker vessel in situ within pit

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

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

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

Early Bronze Age beaker after lifting, Broadway, Worcestershire

Beaker safely lifted

The axe in the water

Few artefacts are as universally appealing as a pristine polished stone axe. A Neolithic extravagance, their neat forms litter the sacred spaces of the final phase of the Stone Age in Europe.

But, 5000 years after its deposition, we pick up the story of one recent discovery not in the splendid setting of a monumental tomb, but in a damp field on the edge of a village on the edge of suburban sprawl, the hum of the M5 ever-present.

It was discovered in a routine exercise, a few trenches to test some ambiguous geophysical survey results: in archaeological jargon, an ‘evaluation’. Come rain or shine, on any given day dozens of these trenches will be dug across the country, to inform planning decisions, building designs or road layouts.

On a cold October afternoon, the excavator bucket skimmed another slice of topsoil from the stubble field, and the watching archaeologist scuffed at a smooth surface exposed in the loose earth. Curiosity turned to delight as the dirt slipped easily from the edge of a flint axe.

Neolithic polished flint axe

Neolithic polished flint axe

Flint is a mercurial material. Indomitably durable and sharper than a razor, this toughest of materials forms within the softest of rocks: the chalk beds that are the remnant of ancient tropical seas. It cleaves along neat and predictable planes, but the hard crests and ridges that render flint so desirable for toolmaking make it the very devil to grind and polish.

But ground and polished this axe was, and the investment in time would have been considerable: knappers tell me that experimental replicas can take up to 150 hours of graft. The grooves in stone polissoirs found in or around Neolithic settlements are testament to that labour – sandstone, sarsen, quartzite or even granite, worn smooth and grooved from years of cumulative effort.

All for the production of axes that in many cases never bit, never chopped, and were seemingly never even hafted. Our axe is made from a honey-coloured flint, the polish highlighting the flaws and mottled colouration like a fine marble tabletop. It probably originated around 100 miles to the south of its resting place, but other examples of the era travelled the length and breadth of the continent.

Which brings us back to the damp field by the M5. Sometimes axes seem to have been deliberately broken prior to deposition. Ours is complete, and it is extraordinary that in the passing years it has avoided the blows of the plough, a common cause of damage. But there is little to suggest the presence of other Neolithic activity. The field yields scattered traces of Iron Age and Roman settlement, heavily scoured by medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture, but nothing contemporary with the axe remains.

So how did our axe end up here? The clue is in the heavy, sticky soil and the adjacent pools and brook. This is likely to have been a watery, marginal place in the Neolithic. From Scandinavia to Ireland, the Netherlands to western Britain, extraordinary and beautiful axes were thrown into bogs, rivers and lakes.

Why? With their mists and mysteries, bodies of water are otherworldly places, even today. Besides the vital role and life-giving qualities of water, we think these places had significance as gateways to a world beneath our realm, and points of contact between the two. 5000 years ago, Neolithic Europeans shared not only trade networks, but aspects of spiritual belief.

And perhaps, in some ways, those beliefs aren’t so very far removed from our own. Ever thrown a coin into a wishing well or fountain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duck stamps and Goose steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of voluntary research

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

New Memorialisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial by the Worcester to Birmingham canal

Memorial by the Worcester to Birmingham canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.