The Giant Wombat in the Basement

There’s a giant wombat in the basement of Worcester Museum. It’s there because Henry Hughes was bored of banking. It was the starting point of a story that has led me, via mid-19th century Brisbane and the learned societies of Victorian England, into some of the darker corners of the British Empire.

In 1838, the young and ambitious Henry Hughes left his job in Worcester for a new life in Australia. He was accompanied by the Isaacs family, including two brothers whom Hughes had known well in Worcester, Henry Edward and Frederic Neville. Hughes and the two Isaacs brothers — just 22 and 18 at the time of their arrival in Australia — bought a farm in Hunter Valley, and settled awhile. But it seems that this agricultural idyll failed to satisfy their thirst for adventure. Spurred by tales of fortunes to be made on the frontier, they sold up and headed along the coast, to the northern limits of New South Wales. They reached the Darling Downs — just west of what is now Brisbane — in 1841, despite having been robbed by armed outlaws along the way. Along with a handful of European settlers, they carved a life for themselves in the lush grasslands along the Condamine River, beyond the edges of their civilisation: a Terra Nullius.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. The land into which they poured their herds of sheep and cattle was no wilderness. The fences they hammered into the stiff clay were stakes in the beating heart of a landscape that had been inhabited for 3000 generations. The first Europeans arrived in the Darling Downs in 1840. Four years later, 26 properties had introduced 150,000 sheep onto the grasslands[1]. Known as ‘squatters’, the earliest settlers had no claim to the crown lands they occupied, but by the time that the Darling Downs were carved up the term had acquired a perverse legitimacy, applied equally to legal settlements. On the back of a booming wool trade, some squatters became staggeringly wealthy, leading to the birth of a landowning class known as the ‘squattocracy’.

For most, however, it was not an easy life. Nonetheless, Hughes and the Isaacs seem to have prospered. That we know anything of their lives at this time is largely down to Hughes’ friend Henry Stuart Russell, who wrote an account of The Genesis of Queensland[2]. It documents frontier life in the Darling Downs, from first explorations to the area’s eventual secession from New South Wales to form the state of Queensland in 1859. The book is dedicated to Hughes; Russell’s affectionate portrayal of his friend reveals a man of wit, generosity, and — in later life — considerable political skill. Russell paints a vivid picture of his first encounter with Hughes and Henry Isaacs. Expecting a pair of prim English gentlemen, he was astonished to be confronted with:

“two individuals seated, each on a keg, smoking. Little, apparently, over twenty years of age; covered with dust; shirt sleeves tucked up to the elbows; doubled up by the heat of work; straw hats, ribandless, and once perhaps of a lighter tinge, heavy boots, which knew not blacking-brushes; each with a silver tankard in hand, a short clay pipe in mouth, there they stood laughing”[3]

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs. By James Gay Sawkins, ca. 1852

They christened their station ‘Stanbrook’, after the Stanbrook Hall Estate near Worcester. It was soon renamed ‘Gowrie’, a corruption of the Aboriginal name for a local freshwater mussel: ‘Cowarie’. They stocked it with cattle. A watercolour painted some ten years after the station was established[4] shows a neat white stockade, a timber homestead with a steep pitched roof, and wild hills rising in the background. Two translucent figures on horseback canter across the pasture. By this date, Hughes had taken up the adjoining station — named Westbrook — though the men remained firm friends and business partners.

Frederick Neville Isaacs, in particular, was a man of rare skill, who adapted rapidly to his adopted homeland and became a skilled bushman. But he was also a man with considerable intellectual and scientific interests. He was an early member of the Queensland Philosophical Society, along with his sister, Elizabeth Coxen. Elizabeth had been 13 years old when the family emigrated. Having initially remained with their father in Sydney, she moved to the Brisbane area in the mid-1840s. She spent some time living with her brother at Gowrie. She, too, became a member of the Philosophical Society, and Gowrie evidently fuelled a lifelong love of natural history. In 1851 she married Charles Coxen, a squatter who rose to become a renowned naturalist, founder of Queensland Museum, and local politician. Elizabeth, who long languished unfairly in her husband’s shadow, was a brilliant scientist in her own right, and was probably the first woman in Australia to work as a natural history curator[5]. Gowrie was no rural backwater: it was a place where a voracious appetite for learning and discovery was shared and celebrated.

As such, the station attracted eminent visitors. The Darling Downs was a launching point for a succession of pioneers, heading north and west into the bush. In 1844, the charismatic and controversial Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt spent some time with the Worcester emigrants, staying on Gowrie station before an overland expedition to Port Essington in the far north of the continent. Frederick Neville Isaacs accompanied Leichhardt on a number of expeditions until the explorer’s mysterious disappearance in 1848[6].

During his first stay at Gowrie, Leichhardt was delighted to be shown some remarkable fossils excavated by Hughes and the Isaacs during the construction of the station[7]. They included examples of giant kangaroos, but the star find was a near-complete specimen of one of the most extraordinary creatures ever to have inhabited Australia: a three-tonne wombat named Diprotodon. This Ice Age colossus, three metres long and two metres tall at the shoulder, is the largest known marsupial.

Diprotodon optatum (2)

Diprotodon grazed the Australian bush for around 1.5 million years. How did such an animal evolve and thrive? Around 5 million years ago the global climate started to become cooler and drier. By 2.6 million years ago, the planet was entering the geological period synonymous with the last Ice Age: the Pleistocene. In a cooler climate, animals show an evolutionary tendency to increase in size, leading to an abundance of ‘megafauna’: animals with an adult body weight of over 44kg. Bergmann’s rule[8] suggests that larger animals have a lower surface area to volume ratio than smaller animals, so they radiate less body heat per unit of mass, and therefore stay warmer in cold climates. Geist[9] and others disagree, arguing that it is more linked to food resources, and ‘productivity pulse’ — the availability of nutrients per animal in a cold-shortened growing and feeding season. The ability to survive periods of food scarcity may be enhanced by bulk; a larger animal can store and survive on fat reserves. Whatever the cause, confined to their continent, Australia’s marsupials grew big. When the first humans made the immense 100km sea crossing from mainland southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago[10], they would have encountered many of these beasts, though their days were numbered. Tales in Aboriginal mythology of giant creatures such as the bunyip have often been thought to be an echo of collective memory of encounters with extinct megafauna[11].

The cause of the decline of the Australian megafauna is still debated. It seems likely that humans played some role, but were not the only factor: increasing aridity was making food resources scarcer[12]. The Diprotodon probably went extinct around 40,000 years ago. But the bones’ perfect preservation in the Gowrie soil convinced Leichhardt that they might still exist in the continent’s unmapped interior. Leichhardt appears to have exhorted Isaacs to send the specimens to his homeland for study, knowing they would excite interest within the burgeoning natural history circles of England.

The first Diprotodon specimens had been described by Richard Owen just six years earlier. Owen was brilliant; a vicious and driven man, but an outstanding naturalist. He founded the Natural History Museum, coined the term ‘Dinosaur’, and sparred ferociously with Charles Darwin. And the finds from Gowrie did attract his interest. He published them in 1859: describing and illustrating specimens of Diprotodon, giant kangaroos of the Macropus genus, and another genus of giant wombat named Nototherium. The fossils are described as being “contributed by Mr Hughes, from freshwater deposits of Darling Downs.”[13]

Despite the passage of over 150 years, some of those fossils still exist. I first encountered them in a battered cardboard box in the basement of Worcester’s City Museum and Art Gallery. They had been erroneously labelled, decades ago, as ‘Pleistocene: South America?’. Entombed in a forest of acid-free tissue paper, we unwrapped them like giddy but cautious children. And there they were: just as they were illustrated in 1859. A double-ridged tooth the size of a matchbox. A jaw, Owen’s name still visible on a label that seemed as aged as the fossil itself. A strange jumble of bones, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but brought to life by the sorcerer Owen.

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis, within Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Coin diameter = 23mm

There were more wonders in the box: bones of Dinornis, the heavy-footed moa, a colossal bird that grew up to 3.6m tall, endemic to New Zealand. Owen first identified the genus in 1839 from a fragment of femur[14], to a chorus of vocal doubters, who pointed out that if it were a bird, it would be unfeasibly large. But Owen was insistent, and when further specimens arrived from the Antipodes in 1843, he was proved right. We unwrapped a toe-bone: dark, branching, the texture of an old oak. It is an object of disquieting otherness, even today. Its impact in 1850s Worcester must have been extraordinary.

This small city was, in the mid-19th century, an intellectual hothouse. The Worcestershire Natural History Society, established in 1833, swiftly amassed a considerable collection. It found a home in 1835, when the Museum of the Worcestershire Natural History Society opened on Foregate Street. A driving force was the remarkable Dr Charles Hastings, who had founded the British Medical Association down the road at Worcester’s Infirmary three years earlier. The imposing classical columns housed a bewildering variety of curiosities. The earliest surviving accession registers comprise roughly seventy pages covering material accepted by the museum between 1837 and 1854. Within the first few entries, there are bird eggs and beetles; geological specimens from local quarries; an entire fossil tree weighing almost a tonne; a cast of a dodo’s head; a selection of Mexican insects; samples of lava from Mount Etna; and a fragment of mortar from the steps of the Parthenon.

Into this mix of odd bedfellows came the specimens from Gowrie, courtesy of Henry Hughes. But how and when did they arrive? I hunted through the registers, and found the entry:

1848 June… 17 Australian Bird Skins 1 Ormthorinus paradoxus… upper portion of Skul (sic) of Native 4 Native bags 6 war weapons portions of dress & ornaments and a number of Fossil bones mostly Jaw bones with teeth discovered in Australia presented by Mr Hughes who brought them over.”

“Upper portion of Skul of Native”. Hughes appears to have briefly returned to Worcester in 1848 with a macabre cargo. Besides the fossils, bird skins, duck-billed platypus, and an assortment of aboriginal artefacts, he brought back a skull. A human skull. An Aboriginal skull.

It is not clear from the descriptions whether the skull was archaeological, or of more recent origin. With over 50,000 years of Aboriginal settlement in Australia, it may have been ancient, uncovered along with the other fossils during those early years at Gowrie. But many of the remains acquired by institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were acquired in murky circumstances: stolen — and in some cases allegedly killed — to order[15].

Hughes and the Isaacs, part of the earliest wave of squatters on the Darling Downs, were in frequent and often fraught contact with local aboriginals. One encounter, in January 1845, saw a group of aboriginals spear and scatter a number of Gowrie’s sheep and cattle. In response, the local squatters rallied twenty horsemen to drive them off. In 1847 Frederick Neville Isaacs attempted to establish a new station at a place named Dullacca. His obituary later recorded that he was “very quickly driven from it by the blacks”[16], and forced to return to the relative safety of Gowrie. Isaacs employed a native tracker named Billy, who helped him to keep the local Aboriginals at bay, notwithstanding an episode where Billy was almost speared[17]. Employees of other stations were less fortunate: among those killed was one of Hughes’ Westbrook staff.

It may have been his experience with Billy that led him to become a vocal proponent of the idea of a ‘Native Police’ force. In November 1848 he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, refuting the suggestion that Aboriginals had been poorly treated, and arguing for the formation of a local ‘Black Police’ to protect the land and assets for which the squatters were paying the Crown. The first such native police force, a paramilitary organisation comprising units of mounted aboriginal troopers commanded by a white officer, had been established in 1837 in Port Phillip District on the south coast. Isaacs got his way. Between 1848 and 1915, the local force for which Isaacs campaigned — known as the Native Mounted Police Force — became notorious for extrajudicial killings and violent reprisals against local Aboriginals[18]. By using Aboriginal troops from areas distant to those in which they served, the Native Police units sought to take advantage of Aboriginals’ superior tracking skills, to keep the wage bill low (supplemented by freely available alcohol and tobacco), and to minimise the chances of reprisal attacks against white settlers.

Isaac’s assertion that Aboriginals were not poorly treated is hard to credit. Aboriginal grievances were well-founded. Their lands had been enclosed and transformed, their delicate ecology trampled under the hooves of the hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock turned out onto the fragile grasslands. Gowrie and Westbrook were held in the 1850s to be “two faultless and flower-carpeted ranches, the best for sheep and cattle this wide Australia holds”[19]. But those sheep and cattle were to prove disastrous, eventually destroying that flower carpet. The Aboriginals had managed the Darling Downs for millennia with an annual burning when the grasses were ripe and dry: a process known as ‘firestick farming’, it encouraged vigorous growth and maximised species diversity, ensuring a productive landscape that met Aboriginal food requirements. All of this was catastrophically disrupted by the grazing of livestock, the erection of fences, and the partition of the land into units under a system of ownership that was utterly alien to the Aboriginal way of life.

In the light of these violations, it is easy to see how Aboriginal resentment sometimes boiled over. But of all the violent episodes in this turbulent time, it is the poisonings that are most shocking. They were all-too frequent around the time that Hughes and the Isaacs were carving their path at Gowrie. Russell discusses one of the most notorious, which took place in February 1842 at Kilcoy Station, approximately halfway between Brisbane and the cluster of stations on the Darling Downs. Several white shepherds working for Sir Evan Mackenzie became increasingly alarmed by the presence of large groups of Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginals who were requesting flour, tobacco, and sugar. To rid themselves of this nuisance, they laced a batch of flour with strychnine. Up to 60 of the Gubbi Gubbi died in agony[20]. The effects were related in graphic detail to Henry Stuart Russell by an escaped European convict named James Davis, who had made his home among the Gubbi Gubbi[21]. Although widely reported in the Australian press, no charges were ever brought. Sir Evan Mackenzie escaped with a caution.

Such actions led to reprisals; the Aboriginal belief in collective responsibility meant that many settlers suffered for the actions of others, expanding the cycle of violence. Russell notes that Hughes and the Isaacs knew and had entertained the victims of the infamous Hornet Bank Massacre in 1857, in which 12 people, members of the Fraser family and their employees, were killed. The action, likely a response to the killing of 12 Iman Aboriginals for spearing cattle and the poisoning of an unknown number of others with a strychnine-laced Christmas pudding, sparked a vicious response which almost annihilated the tribe[22].

In such an atmosphere, with death a constant presence and a viciously antagonistic attitude towards Aboriginal people, it is not hard to understand how Hughes and the Isaacs had scant regard for the physical remains of the indigenous population. Whatever the origins of the skull, Hughes and the Isaacs placed so little value on Aboriginal culture that they saw fit to send body parts halfway around the world, to be catalogued with no more ceremony than a few ‘portions of dress & ornaments’.

I do not yet know what became of the skull. To those not familiar with historic museum collections, this may sound surprising. Unfortunately, it is not unusual. In the 170 years since Hughes brought it back, the museum collections have declined, moved, been revived, changed ownership, and suffered all manner of indignities. The collections of the Worcestershire Natural History Society had, by the late 19th century, faded from their heyday in the 1840s to 1860s and fallen into disarray. They were eventually moved to the new Victoria Institute, which opened in 1896. Much of the collection still resides there, but some has been moved to a succession of out-stores. Some records survive, but many more do not. There were the challenges of the Second World War, too, during which the fate of museum collections was understandably low on the list of municipal priorities. In a bid to clear space for war work, aisles of artefacts were dumped on the street. Their fate is unclear, but at least some are thought to have ended up in landfill.

There are practical issues, too. After 170 years, labels can become illegible, or detached. Transcription errors are perpetuated and magnified. Documentation can become a game of Chinese whispers, leading to cases like the ‘South America’ label on the box of Australian fossils. Worcester’s museum collections are now in excellent hands, but to unpick such a tangled web across hundreds of thousands of objects — spanning nearly two centuries — is a colossal task.

At some point, the skull was evidently separated from the rest of the material. Owen’s 1859 publication does not mention it. There is no record of repatriation. The uncertainty over its location is a source of spiritual danger, both for the descendants of the individual and for the land itself. This is equally acute whether the individual was tens of thousands old, or recently deceased. In Aboriginal culture, the living navigate the land by the knowledge of the resting places of the dead[23]. Their presence within the land itself is an anchor; their absence from the land is a curse:

“Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering. Unless they go back home the spirit never rests.” Aboriginal elder Major Sumner[24]

I have written before that we stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. Henry Hughes, Frederick Neville Isaacs, Henry Edward Isaacs, and Elizabeth Coxen were remarkable people. We cannot, and should not, overlook their qualities; it is precisely because they are admirable in so many other ways that their failure to accord Aboriginal culture the respect it deserves is so stark. They were active participants in an episode of human history in which the values of the European enlightenment failed catastrophically to comprehend the land and people they encountered, with appalling consequences. The missing skull, all the more powerful in its absence, bears witness to the dark origins of scientific endeavour and natural history collections. It cannot be ignored.

Museums across the country are filled with objects that are the gateway to stories like this. They highlight the complexities of the human condition. The best and worst of us is contained within them. How did a society that could transport those fossils halfway across the globe — and identify the beast to whom they once belonged — fail so utterly to appreciate the humanity and society of the people they met, in that continent of wonders? The giant wombat in the basement stares back at me. Its presence is a challenge and a warning, across half the world and 50,000 years: dig deeper, and tell of what you find.

This post is based on personal research into Worcester’s Ice Age collections, undertaken whilst working for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service on the Lost Landscapes project. Many thanks are due to the staff of Museums Worcestershire – particularly Deb Fox, Garston Phillips, and Kerry Whitehouse – for their help and encouragement. It is to Museums Worcestershire’s great credit that they are committed to frank and open discussions about the difficult history behind some of their early acquisitions, and we are currently discussing ways in which more of these stories can be told. Any ideas or suggestions gratefully received. Thanks are also due to members of the Royal Society for Biology West Midlands and the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, and the Megathread, for being a receptive, constructive, and supportive sounding board for this research.

Footnotes:

Click number to return to place in text

↑ 1 Ian Parsonson The Australian Ark: A History of Domesticated Animals in Australia (Clayton: Csiro Publishing, 1998)

↑ 2 Henry Stuart Russell The Genesis of Queensland (Public domain, 1888). Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1305181h.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

↑ 3 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 4 James Gay Sawkins, watercolour, ca. 1852. Public domain. Available at: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135205733/view [accessed 28 April 2018].

↑ 5 Judith McKay and John M. Healy, ‘Elizabeth Coxen: pioneer naturalist and the Queensland Museum’s first woman curator’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum–Nature 60 (2017), pp.139-160. Brisbane. ISSN 2204-1478 (Online)

↑ 6 See Darrell Lewis, Where is Dr Leichhardt?: the greatest mystery in Australian history, (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013).

↑ 7 Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an overland expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845 (London: T. and W. Boone, 1847). Available at: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00050.pdf [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 8 Carl Bergmann, ‘Über die Verhältnisse der Wärmeökonomie der Thiere zu ihrer Grösse’, Göttinger Studien 3 (1) (1847), pp. 595–708.

↑ 9 Valerius Geist, ‘Bergmann’s rule is invalid’, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 65 (4) (1987), pp.1035–1038.

↑ 10 Giles Hamm et al., ‘Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia’, Nature 539 (2016), pp.280-283.

↑ 11 Pat Vickers-Rich et al. (eds), Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia(Lilydale: Pioneer Design Studio in cooperation with the Monash University Publications Committee, Melbourne, 1991).

↑ 12 See: Judith Field and Stephen Wroe, ‘Aridity, faunal adaptations and Australian Late Pleistocene extinctions’, World Archaeology 44 (2012), pp.56-74.

↑ 13 Richard Owen, ‘On a Collection of Australian Fossils in the Museum of the Natural History Society at Worcester; with Descriptions of the Lower Jaw and Teeth of the Nototherium inerme and Nototherium Mitchelli, Owen; demonstrating the identity of the latter species with the Zygomaturus of Macleay.’  Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 15 (1859), pp.176-186. https://doi.org/10.1144/GSL.JGS.1859.015.01-02.37

↑ 14 Gowan Dawson, ‘On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=gowan-dawson-on-richard-owens-discovery-in-1839-of-the-extinct-new-zealand-moa-from-just-a-single-bone [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 15 Jillian Mundy, ‘Remains back in safe hands’, The Koori Mail, 23rd September 2009, p.9 https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/digitised_collections/the_koori_mail/460.pdf

↑ 16 The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 18th July 1865, p.2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1275400

↑ 17 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead, Kingsthorpe’ Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 18 (9) (2004), pp.406–419.

↑ 18 Jonathan Richards, The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008).

↑ 19 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead’, p412.

↑ 20 Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle, ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872’ (2017) https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=5014 [accessed 28 April 2018]

↑ 21 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 22 Gordon Reid, Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982).

↑ 23 Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Stolen spirits brought home to be at rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2011. https://www.smh.com.au/national/stolen-spirits-brought-home-to-be-at-rest-20110719-1hnbv.html [accessed 25 April 2018]

↑ 24 Paola Totaro, ‘Bringing home the dead so their spirits can rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009. https://www.smh.com.au/national/bringing-home-the-dead-so-their-spirits-can-rest-20090512-b1w9.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

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!

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.

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.