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.

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.