Boats against the current

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Mary Magdalene Church, Alfrick, Worcestershire

St Mary Magdalene, Alfrick

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

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.