Sunday, 4 October 2015

David Inshaw and Silbury Hill

There was a good article in The Guardian yesterday about the artist David Inshaw. I suspect like a lot of people I first came across the work of David Inshaw via the cover art of the Arden Shakespeare series in the 1980s, some of which we had at school. Theses editions had the covers provided by members of the Brotherhoodof Ruralists, a group of artists established in the 1970s by, amongst others, Peter Blake, a slightly unlikely figure for such an avowedly neo-Romantic movement. Inshaw is best known for his quasi-surrealist, slightly ominous landscapes and views – the Badminton Game is the best known (again, used as a book cover, for The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories). This first exposure must have been at more or less at the same time as I was first becoming really aware of the Wiltshire Downs and the landscape around Avebury and Silbury Hill, and the two are permanently linked in my mind. Although I always knew that much of his art derives from the area round his home in Devizes, it was only relatively recently though that I discovered that he has also regularly painted Silbury Hill. I first came across one of these pictures on the cover of Adam Thorpe’s wonderful little psychogeography-cum-memoir OnSilbury Hill  (remind me I must bog about Adam Thorpe at some point…), although this particular image Wiltshire Landscape- Silbury Hill is surprisingly un-Inshawesque, in that it’s a relatively straightforward landscape despite the slightly contorted topography and blood red sun.

More generally though, there is often a feeling of repressed tension about his images- the sense of a storm about to break. There is also a nice combination of realism and heavy symbolism that comes straight out of the surrealist tradition and plugs into that 1970s psychedelic pastoralism that strangely surfaced so regularly in childrens’ television of the 1970s and early 1980s.  I’ve previously written about the artistic responses to Silbury Hill/Avebury by slightly earlier Neo-Romantic artists, such as John Nash and John Piper so it is nice to see my two interests connecting (by a leyline?).

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Archaeological fieldwork training in universities

This long blog entry is a follow up to a recent thread on the BAJR Facebook page about the training offered in field archaeology by universities. It originated in comments on a blog entry about US universities charging students for compulsory field training, but soon veered into a wider discussion about how universities should train their students in field archaeology and in particular the role of the field school/training excavation. As someone who is currently closely involved in running a training excavation for university students this is a debate that I’m particularly interested in.

Before I explore the wider issues, it’s important to address one particular facet of the arguments. University students should never have to pay extra to carry out field training which is a core part of their course. As far as I’m concerned if it’s a compulsory element then it should be covered in overall course fees. I am fairly certain (but I’d need to double check) that UK universities at least are not actually allowed to do this. Certainly, in my institution, all our 1st years BA/BSc Archaeology students get their field school training for free and we now ensure that our 2nd years have the chance to fulfil their field obligations for free – although if they wish to spend their own money on a non-university project that is of course their prerogative.

So, to business…

Should university archaeology degrees be vocational?
This was a question that came up several times in the thread. It all depends what one means by vocational. Should it equip a student with skills necessary for a career in archaeology- yes, of course. However, this is not the same as saying it should equip a student with all the skills necessary for an archaeological job. It can only be a first step along that path.

To take a step back  - we need to recognise that many students choose  a UG course in archaeology without ever having any intention of working in archaeology. For many, it is a good, general humanities degree, akin to English, History or Classics – it provides a sound general advanced liberal education- it teaches many transferrable skill. The bulk of our students do not go on to work in heritage, instead they follow all sorts of other career paths – teaching, law, social work, journalism, generic management posts, local and national civil service etc etc. I think it is important not to characterise these people as those  who couldn’t hack archaeology or were not dedicated enough- I believe incredibly strongly in the value of having a wider public audience for archaeology and heritage who can support, campaign and ‘cheerlead’ for the subject. I am extremely glad that there are primary school teachers, local councillors, planners, IT workers and librarians who have a background in archaeology but are out there in the wider world helping to constitute and support an informed and positive attitude to archaeology and heritage. This is, in itself, an important and valuable function met by archaeology degrees.

Yes, but what about those who do want a job in archaeology?
Agreed- whilst many students do not want a career in archaeology/heritage, there is also a significant number who do have more vocational intentions. However, inevitably, things are complicated. Much of the debate about vocational training often boils down to field experience. It is axiomatic that excavation skills are a core part of the basic archaeological proficiency one should have to work in the profession. But, and this is important, they are not the only skills. I would really resist the sometime implicit assumption that vocational training can be boiled down to ‘excavation’ with the sub-text that the only proper archaeology job is a digging job. There are lots of career paths in archaeology- excavation of course, but also, environmental archaeology, museums management, finds work, geophysics, field survey, data management (HERs etc),  planning consultancy, local and national government curatorial posts So when I hear people saying, archaeology degrees should be more vocational, my immediate response is, yes, bu which vocation?

It is of course obvious that knowing how to excavate is a profoundly important skill for many archaeology jobs– academics, finds specialist, curators and consultants should all have a good understanding of the process which leads to the creation of their basic datasets- again, this is obvious. But equally, those working in the field need to have a good understanding of finds, the sampling of environmental data (and very importantly, the interpretation of the resulting data sets) etc etc. Ultimately, archaeology is an interdisciplinary subject drawing on many different, but interlocking and related techniques, of which field archaeology is just one. We need to be very careful about bracketing field skills off, as somehow more ‘vocational’ than these other skills.
So, I hope we can agree that archaeological professionals require a variety of skills. This leads us to the next question…

Can universities provide all the necessary vocational skills for a career in archaeology at UG level?

My clear answer to this is an unequivocal NO. Can a single undergraduate degree programme hope to train a student sufficiently with all the skills required to move seamlessly into all aspects of archaeology without any further training? Of course it can’t. In fact, if one looks around at other professions (and we all like to insist that archaeology is a ‘profession’ rather than just a job) then it is the exception to find any that don’t require additional, post graduation training- teachers need PGCEs on top their UG degrees, lawyers, accountants, those working in medicine, all require further training before being allowed to fly solo. We should in fact ask ourselves, why do we as a profession insist on our field being taken more seriously and those who work in it being provided with more respect (and pay), when at the same time, we don’t seem to embrace the notion that this means putting more value on Continued Professional Training and wider education and skills development beyond a basic degree? An archaeology degree should certainly equip the student with the skills and techniques to know which area of archaeology particularly interests them, and a certain basic level of competence, but we can’t expect it to be able to provide 21 year olds capable of stepping into any of the many career paths within archaeology without any semblance of additional training.

So what basic excavation skills should a student leave an UG degree with?

This is more complex- I suspect there are many different answers. Speaking from my point of view, it is possible to come up with a basic checklist of skills they should have been taught

  •           Understanding the notion of a context and having some appreciation of how to identify and define one in the field.
  •           Understanding the basic notion of excavation e.g that we aim to excavate stratigraphically, that we try to work from ‘known’ to ‘unknown’, that we don’t wave mattocks round our heads, that we know the difference between a shovel and a spade (and some might add, the skill to construct and light a rollie in a rainstorm and how to use a wheelbarrow as an armchair)
  •           How to draw a section
  •           How to draw a plan
  •           How to take a level using a dumpy and calculate the correct height using the backsight/foresight method.
  •          How to fill in a context sheet – and understand the wider notion of single context recording.
  •           The distinction between ‘small’ and ‘bulk’ finds and an appreciation of the wider finds recording process

II’d also supplement this with a wider understanding of the development process (even if only in outline), the dubious joys of MORPHE and things like Research Frameworks (all things we teach in our Professional Training course at Durham).

I am sure there are additional things others people might add to this and I’m open to haggling. Having completed these skills would they be able to go an operate autonomously on a professional excavation? Of course not. In practice, during most excavations, whether commercial, research or ‘other’ these are the basic skills – but as we are all aware, it is one thing to know the basic principles, but quite another to be confident in their day to day use and having the wit to be able to cope with the complicated, unexpected or plain bloody confusing. This is because, at the end of the day, field archaeology requires experience- it involves being exposed to variety, complexity and the mundane, day after day after day. Working in the field is a continual learning exercise – we all know that. Universities can provide the basics, but strong field skills derive from continued explicit training and implicit practice-based experiential learning.

[NB: the question of whether all universities do provide the basic training checklist I’ve outlined above is a different question – at my institution we strive to- I’ll leave it to my students to comment on how successful we are – and if any of them are reading this, I’d genuinely like to hear your perspectives]

The devil is in the detail…

In this final section I want to address some of the pragmatic issues that impact on university fieldwork training- and look at some of the practical problems that arise when fine aspirations meet the friction of reality.

First- the timing of field schools- when should they be held? This was something that arose in the FB thread. The traditional model has been to hold the training excavation during the Easter or more commonly summer vacation. There are very good reasons for this- summer is when the weather is better- of course that’s when most people would rather dig. No matter how refined and perfect your programme of excavation training is, no matter how carefully devised your  skills passport / checklist is, you are are going to be right royally shafted if it pisses down for the four weeks of your dig. And before anyone kicks in with ‘in my day we were expected to work through rain/tsunamis/plagues of locusts’ – I have two responses – firstly, “No you weren’t” – I had plenty of experience on training digs in the early 1990s and I spent a lot of time in wet portacabins doing the Guardian crossword and watching the puddles grow outside. Secondly, if you did, its grossly irresponsible and dangerous- working through a bit of drizzle is fine, but if  you want to make students push heavy barrows of clay spoil up slippery planks in the pouring rain, then your attitude to basic health and safety suggests that you should probably not be working in archaeology.

There are other pragmatic reasons for the timing of excavations during the vacations- it’s when the staff are free. Academic staff don’t just teach a single year, they are usually committed to teaching at all three UG levesl, at PGT and PGR level plus having loads of admin jobs- it’s often not feasible to go into the field during the term time – unless that field happens to be within 20 minutes of University.

Nonetheless, increasingly universities seem to be moving towards holding excavations during the term time. This is precisely because there is a strong pressure (indeed increasingly an obligation) that all compulsory teaching should take place during term time; which I think is fair enough. One particular issue is that with the advent of university fees, there is a far greater pressure for students to take paid work during the vacation. I’d feel very uneasy about forcing a student into financial difficulties by preventing them from earning money outside term time (although of course, the other problem is that some students wok during term time- it’s a Catch 22).
There are other pragmatic issues revolving around running field schools. If they are run during term time, then there are other constraints. For example, at my institution, and presumably others as well, the students all pay for their accommodation termly. They cannot get rebates/reductions/refunds if they are not in residence during a field school, this means that in practice the project has to be run within easy coach distance from campus, which obviously seriously limits the choice of sites.
There are also the basic problems that sites are infinitely variable- as I noted above, we’ve tried to ensure all our students check off the list of skills I outlined above. In an ideal world every student would follow the process through seamlessly from defining a context to excavation and recording. But it’s not always that easy- what if a student does not find a single small find during their time on site? or there are not enough cut features for everyone to draw their own section? In practice, this leads to individuals having variable experiences even on the same excavation in the same year with the same supervisors.
There are other issues – costs – that old chestnut. Want to provide a ten week summer excavation experience for UG students who want to gain lots of excavation experience? knock yourself out! We’ve run long seasons on our field training project, but that’s only because we’ve had additional income streams though overseas partners and grants- we have been very, very, lucky in this respect; it is not something that can be relied on. And don’t forget, the longer you dig, the bigger the post-ex costs – how are you going to pay for that?

One suggestion I’ve seen is that students ought to be able to work on commercial digs. Again, a wonderful idea in theory, but very tricky on practice. I know it does occasionally happen, but the circumstances are few and far between. There is a big difference between seizing opportunities for this kind of thing when they are presented. But it’s a very different thing to put this kind of thing into a regularised framework. How can you guarantee that there will be enough opportunities, at precisely the right time and for precisely the right number of students? There are also all the wider problems with having non-professionals on site – insurance, Health and Safety – who is going to pay for the students to get their CSC card for example and how will this be timetabled? I suspect that it wouldn’t be long before there would also be complaints that student volunteers were doing the jobs of professionals and taking jobs.

So to conclude this unexpectedly long blog entry. Do UK universities turn out perfectly formed diggers? No, and nor can they be expected to. Being a good digger involves much more than learning the basic skills- it requires experience and it requires time. A good university field training can set people on the right tracks and equip them with an understanding of the basic principles and some practical familiarity with the process, but they cannot and more importantly should not be in the trade of providing a complete vocational training for fieldwork or indeed any other aspect of archaeological professional practice. Can we improve what we do provide? Almost certainly, although as I hope I’ve shown there are quite a lot of practical issues people may not appreciate. Do all universities provide good field training? Probably not, although in my experience most do.
Where we need to do more as universities and as a wider profession though is expectation management. We need to make it clear to prospective students that we can set you on the path towards professional training, we can provide you with the basic tools and concepts, but that as with any proper career, progression into the profession involved building on those skills. In some cases that may be through post-graduate training within Universities, but if we want to be taken seriously as a profession, the commercial sector also needs to take part of the responsibility of supporting and nurturing its workforce.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Pitt-River's Museum morris dance bell pads: initial thoughts

It was perhaps inevitable that as both an archaeologist and a long-time folky (and now morris dancer) I would end up looking at the material culture of English folk traditions. I've been fiddling around with this for the last year or so. Finally, a month ago, I made arrangements to go and have a look at the various items related to Cotswold morris dancing that are held in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. People usually associate the PRM with anthropological collections from across the world and are often surprised that it also holds material from England. There was in fact recently a really rather good project, called The Other Within, which looked at the various English material in the its collections. It was this that first drew the various morris ephemera to my attention. The project notes on these items were written by Mike Heaney and are excellent pieces of work, effectively exploring the provenance of these objects. However, from my archaeological perspective they did not really engage with the physical objects themselves terribly strongly. I'm really keen on an object biography approach for understanding them, and obviously the work on provenance is incredibly useful in this context, but its only half the story and does not really tackle the physical objects themselves. It was this that drew me to the Pitt-Rivers. Over the next couple of weeks I want to explore some of my initial thoughts and observations. These are probably fairly inconsequential, but hopefully will flag up some of the potential that can be derived from really exploring the physical dimensions of the items.

 I want to start by looking at a couple of sets of bell pads, in particular a group of bell pads ([1903.57.1]; [1917.53.468]; [1945.11.65]; [2008.59.1]). The short description of the 1903 pads on the Other Within website reads:
Four pairs of bell pads made of red leather with green ribbon around the perimeter, gathered into small bows at the corners and midpoints of each side, and with light brown braid for leg ties. Each has twelve crotal bells arranged 4x3 on the three central vertical strips of leather. 200 x 149 mm

This description holds true of the other bell pads in this group. These were collected at intervals and were accessioned in 1903, 1917, 1945 and 2008. The all appear very similar; the earliest set (1903.57.1) have written on them “'Morris bell sets, made for the revival of Morris dances arranged for the Coronation festivities in Oxford 1902 (the dances were not held owning to the King's illness)”. Their similarity suggests that although collected at times they were intended as a set all for use in the 1902 festivities.

Label on reverse of 1903.57.1

But, a closer inspection suggests that the matter is not quite as simple as it seems. The 1903, 1917 and 2008 sets certainly appear identical, both in terms of the material used, and in the workmanship and constructional technique – looking at the reverse shows the bells are all attached in the same way using similar string, types of knots etc. It is hard to resist the conclusion that they are indeed a set, probably made by the same individual and certainly using the same stock of materials.
Intriguingly, the 1945 set appear different. There are clear broad similarities, the types of bell, the leather sheet onto which the bells are attached and the colour scheme are more or less identical. However, there are also noticeable differences. First, although the green ribbon is the same colour, it is distinctly narrower than that on the other pads. There are also subtle differences in the crotal bells. Those on the 1945 have a narrower slot in them than those on the other pads do – they clearly come from a different source.

When the pad is turned over there are other differences. First, although the way in which the bells are held onto the pad is similar in that a string is run through the loop shanks of all four bells on each strip of leather, there are some subtle distinctions, most notably there is more string left over after the knot is tied at the top and bottom. Similar differences in construction can be seen when comparing the way in which the ribbon that ties the pad to the leg are compared. On the 1945 pad the ribbon is attached neatly by vertical groups of cross-stitches (I may have the technical term incorrect). On the others, the ribbon is attached by a less systematic cluster of simple stitches (again, I don't have the technical terminology). A final difference can be seen in the way in which the green ribbon is attached to the leather backing. In the 1945 set, a red thread is used – this is distinct from the buff thread used to attach the ribbon on the same pad. In the other sets, the same buff thread is used to attach both the leg ribbons and the green ribbons.
Knots on rear of 1945.11.65 - note also red thread used to attach
green ribbon

Knots on rear of 1903.57.1.4

Stitching attaching leg ribbon on 1903 bell set

Stitching attaching leg ribbon on 1945 bell set-
gain, note use of red thread to attach the green ribbon
These differences in materials (bells; green ribbon; red thread) as well as the distinction in stitching and knot tying, clearly set the 1945 set apart. The only thing that actually links all the sets together are the broad colour scheme, layout and the noticeably the red leather backing, which does appear virtually identical on all the sets. The first two sets are recorded as being supplied by a TJ Carter (in fact the 1917 set says FJ Carter, but this is probably a mistake). However, the 1945 set are distinct enough in constructional technique and material to suggest that at the very least they were made by a different person, and quite possibly given the subtle variation in the materials, at a different time.

Bells on 1903 bell set - note narrower flange and wider gap at base

Bells on 1945 bell pad

 So, is it possible to say when and why the 1945 set were made? Frustratingly, probably not. The 1902 morris display was a fairly precocious example of the morris revival – probably under the aegis of early collector and enthusiast Percy Manning – and noticeably before Sharp took an interest in the Headington morris. However, it was not the last pre-WWI morris dancing at Oxford. For example, the memoir recording the life of Oxford folk play enthusiast and keen morris dancer, Reginal Tiddy records that he was engaged in morris dancing in Oxford probably in the early 1910s. In the latest volume of the Morris Dancer by Roy Judge on The Oxford University Morris Men 1899 – 1914 records an event organised by the ‘Oxford Society for the Revival of the Folk Dance’ in October 1908 organised by Mary Neal and including William Kimber doing an exhibition dance.

 It is clear that the 1945 set were based on the 1902 set- but can be distinguished from them. One plausible scenario is that they were copied from them at some time in Oxford in the early 20th century, possibly for another early revival performance, such as the 1908 lecture. The similarity in the leather backing suggests that there may have been some direct contact between the individual or individuals involved in making both sets- perhaps even re-using elements from a 1902 set. 

Overall, this does not radically change the interpretation of this group of objects – they are broadly similar in appearance and must have some kind of connection, although not as direct as Heaney suggests. More generally though, this simple analysis does show the value of returning to the objects themselves and subjecting them to a more detailed examination.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

In search of William Kimber: a morris pilgrimage

Headington is not the kind of place one would expect to visit on the trail of morris dancing heritage. A suburb of north Oxford strung out along the main road towards London, it is in parts cheerfully shabby, and in other places, includes the large Victorian villas typical of so many of the city’s suburbs. It is certainly a long way from the solidly rural settings which most people associate with traditional morris dancing. However, it has an important place in the history of traditional dance in England, for here, on Boxing Day in 1899, Cecil Sharpe first heard a Headington builder William Kimber play traditional morris tunes, when the Headington Quarry morris team danced out at Sandfield Cottage, where Sharp and his family were staying with his mother-in-law.

William Kimber became a key figure, as both a dancer and a musician, in the Morris revival led by Sharpe and Mary Neale. Unlike other known figures associated with traditional morris or the early stages of the revival, Kimber has left a mark on the local landscape – it is possible to engage in a form of musical  journey around Headington in the footsteps of the revival. As a morris dancer, for me, there was an element of pilgrimage, but as an archaeologist and someone interest in how ancient and modern landscapes act as sites of memory, it is fascinating excursion into a musical landscape.

In 1958, a new road in Headington Quarry was named William Kimber Crescent- as far as I know the only road in Britain named after a morris dancer. Kimber himself officiated at the opening ceremony. 

The following year, there was another act of memorialisation for Kimber. Sandfield Cottage, the place of the first meeting between Kimber and Sharp was demolished in the mid-1960s. However, before this, in 1959, Kimber unveiled a plaque on the building recording the events (Sharp had died in 1924). Following the demolition of the house, the plaque was re-erected on of the new flats built on the site. It can still be seen, incongruously, half-way up the wall just below a satellite dish. It is not clear who arranged for the plaque to be erected; there is no further information on the tablet itself – this is something for a little further research!

William Kimber died in 1961 and is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard, Headington Quarry, just round the corner from CS Lewis, another resident of Headington. Rather splendidly, his gravestone is decorated with carved stone morris bells and a concertina – the inscription reads “WILLIAM (MERRY) KIMBER / Father of English Morris 1872–1961

Kimber worked for most of his life as a builder. He built many houses in the area – and around 1908 he built his own house Merryville (after his nickname Merry) at 42 St Anne’s Road. In 2011, the Oxfordshire Blue Plaque scheme awarded it with a blue plaque reading “WILLIAM KIMBER / 1872–1961  / Headington Quarry morris dancer and musician  / Key figure in the English Morris / Dance & Folk Music Revival / lived here at ‘Merryville’ / 1908–1961.

It is not the only Blue Plaque to a morris dancer that I know of- Cecil Sharp has one at 4 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead and Mary Neale is commemorated by one in Littlehampton – although surprisingly I can’t find one for George Butterworth. There is also one to R J Tiddy in Ascott-under-Wychwood, which I’ll blog about soon. However, Kimber appears to be the only original dancer to be thus commemorated as opposed to a revivalist or a collector.

The final location on my mini-pilgrimage was the Chequers in Beaumont Road, Headington. There is a splendid photograph of the Headington Quarry team standing outside the pub taken by the prolific Oxfordshire photographer Henry Taunt. The image was probably taken around 1899 following the re-emergence of the side under the stimulus of Percy Manning. It is one of a series of photos taken by Taunt showing the dancers outside the pub and in the act of dancing. William Kimber can be seen playing the fiddle rather than the concertina with which he is more usually associated. The pub itself has been heavily restored- the wooden porch with its licensing information has now gone. There is an even earlier image of the Headington Team outside the Chequers taken just to the right of the porch in 1876 – Kimber was only four when this was taken. However, his father, also named William, can be seen in the back row of dancers next to the fiddler.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Looking for Heartbreak Hill: landscapes of the Great Depression in Northern England

Over the last decade, the world has been living through a period of massive economic disruption and global recession. This has had a profound impact on many particularly through wage cuts and job losses. However, in Britain, the affect on unemployment is dwarfed by the loss of work that occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the US, one of the key governmental responses to unemployment was the foundation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was responsible for overseeing massive schemes of public works and civil infrastructure construction. This was often structured through 'work camps' bringing workers together to carry out the labour. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also oversaw nearly 2 million young men passing through their work camps carrying out conservation and forestry projects.

The archaeological survivals of these responses to unemployment are well established as a topic for research by US and Canadian scholars. However, there has been little engagement by UK scholars in this aspect of 20th century heritage. This is not because the impact of the depression was more limited in Britain. Nationally, unemployment more than doubled (from 1million to 2.5 million). In the north-east of England, the situation was worse than the national average. In the shipbuilding areas of Tyneside such as Jarrow unemployment hit 70% whilst in the ironstone mining areas of Cleveland, a staggering 90% of the workforce was out of a job. However, there was only limited centralised governmental investment in formal work programmes. There were, though, a series of individual, often privately funded, initiatives providing new settlements and work schemes for the unemployed, as well as some centrally supported work camps. But because of the diverse and patchy nature of this response it has generally failed to capture the interest of researchers.

Now, though, David Petts and Quentin Lewis from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University are starting a project (funded by a Durham University Seedcorn Research Grant) to explore this aspect of 20th century heritage. The pilot project is focussing in on the north-east of England and is collating the various responses to unemployment, exploring how they were structured and funded, defining their impact on the local landscape and assessing the extent to which there are still physical traces of these sites.

Our initial focus is on “Heartbreak Hill”, a co-operative allotment scheme set up for unemployed ironstone miners in 1936. This was funded by a combination of the local Tory landowners, the Conservative MP and his radical wife. It also drew in a range of other participants, including intriguing figures such as the neo-fascist morris dancing organicist Rolf Gardiner and composer Michael Tippett. Using archive sources and field visits, we are mapping the location of the scheme, and are planning some simple field survey to attempt to identify any of the surviving infrastructure.

We have also been working to identify the sites of other work programmes and engagement and educational initiatives responding to unemployment in the North-East. To date these include the Spennymoor Settlement (a community settlement partly funded through the Pilgrim Trust), forestry work-camps (Instructional Training Centres) at Hamsterley, Byrness and Kielder, the Swarland settlement (founded by the private Fountains Abbey Land Settlement Company) and the Land Settlement Association farm at Stannington. Some of these have very little surviving evidence, for example, the forestry camp at Kielder is now beneath the waters of the Kielder reservoir. At other sites though, there are stll physical traces of these initiatives. One of the huts from the work camp at Hamsterley is now part of the Forestry Commission visitor centre, the theatre at the Spennymoor Settlement is still in use, whilst there are eleven of the earliest buildings at Swarland are protected by Listing.

The project is still in its early stages; we hope to complete our initial work at Heartbreak Hill in the early summer and aim to then develop a larger grant proposal to take this research forward in the near future.

If anyone reading this has any information about any of the sites mentioned or knows of other similar initiatives we'd be pleased to hear from you!

Friday, 7 March 2014

"The history of clouds" World War II skyscapes

With all this talk of recording and rediscovering the home front landscapes of World War I, I thought this would be a good point to have a ponder about the home front landscapes of World War II instead.

In Britain, we've been lucky; the last battle on British soil took place in 1746 at Culloden. We have no historic battlefields of 19th or 20th century date at all. Our experience of World War I was largely vicarious, barring occasional naval bombardment and a little limited bombing (remind me to tell you the story of how my great-grandfather got a medal for not shooting down a zeppelin). The landscape imprint of the Great War is largely confined to the run up to combat (training camps; practice trenches) and the aftermath (hospitals and war graves / memorials).

The same is true to a certain extent of World War II. Again, there was no land-based combat on UK soil (unless Went the Day Well and the Eagle has Landed are true). The direct experience of the destructive power of modern warfare was however felt through the impact of the bombing raids. Obviously these were most extensive in the Blitz over London – my great-grandparents lost their house. But many other places, Coventry, Bristol, Cardiff Liverpool and other great industrial cities were heavily hit. Even smaller towns such as York felt the impact of the Luftwaffe – my daughter's school was substantially rebuilt following the Baedeker raid on York in 1942. These not surprisingly had a massive physical impact on the fabric of British cities and these structural and social effects were recorded by artists during and after the bombings.

However, I've been increasingly coming across another dimension to the landscape experience of the World War II air war. I'm currently reading a book by HE Bates called “In the heart of the country” written in 1942 about living in Kent during 1941. It is primarily a book about nature and rural life, but the war keeps on breaking through the surface. He encounters evacuee children, meets squaddies fishing, records a crashed German bomber and a dogfight over the village resulting in a Messerschmidt being shot down. For Bates, the “memorable hot beauty of that summer was sharply impregnated by the prick of destruction”.

One particular experience he mentions was the appearance of vapour-trails in the sky tracing the twists and turns of Spitfires and Messerschmidts in combat

So you got another example of the how little a war, savagely though it was fought above the countryside affected the countryside. The summer went on from that day in middle August as if the air-battles were not only clearing the sky of raiders but clearing it also of cloud. But towards the end of the summer they began to do the opposite things; they began to fill it with cloud. It was cloud such as has never been seen before. The white or blue-white vapour trails of plane-wings were a new phenomenon. They streamed in delicate smoke parallels from the wings of planes that were not visible, or they whitened suddenly the fresh blue autumn surface of a sky with soft splashes of milky curd. If there were many planes and the sky was blue and clear enough, it was would as if the sky were ice and the planes were skaters marking on the virgin surface all the rings and spirals and figures-of-eight and fancy cuttings that skates make on a frozen pond. These patterns sharp, frost-white, so fine and fancy, when first made, added something to the history of clouds. Sometimes you never saw the plane except for a split second as they turned in the sun; all you saw were the parallel streams of snow pouring backward from a moving point. Sometimes a squadron would turn in the sky, and then the snow-trails would turn too, suddenly merged together or split apart, but always, as they hung far behind, enlarging and softening and sometimes even assuming the shape of natural cloud, remaining visible for a long-time.(Bates 1942, 86-7)

The con-trails also make an appearance in the wonderful woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe that illustrate the book, including my favourite image, of a man lying on his back looking over the Kent countryside with the vapour tails like spider scratches at the top of the picture.

These vapour trails not surprisingly appear to have had quite an impact on those who observed them, and they appear several times in art and film in the early 1940s. The best known example is the painting Battle of Britain – by Paul Nash (Yes him again), which although as is typical of Nash's post-WWI work is balanced on the very cusp of surrealism, depicts the con-trails of dog fights over the Channel.

Vapour trails also appear in the work of other war artists, such as Richard Eurich, who depicted them on the south coast in his painting Fortresses over Southampton Water and Airfight Over Portland, and Walter Monnington's Southern England, 1944. Spitfires Attacking Flying-Bombs.

A classic filmic depiction of con-trails I've come across recently is the Noel Coward war film “In which we serve” (a film, which incidentally, should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Trousers). At 1hr24min50s into the film, a frightfully dapper Capt Kinross (Noel Coward), his cut-glass Mrs (Celia Johnson) and family have a picnic and watch the vapour trails of a dogfight going on overhead. [I did go back and check the famous opening sequence of Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, with the famous jump cut from a diving medieval kestrel to a Spitfire, but sad to report, no vapour trail).

In a world where we are used to seeing the trails behind high altitude plains, it is easy to forget that until the Battle of Britain very few people would ever have seen vapour trails- they were something new and with their close connection to dog-fights and bombings must have had a slightly sinister beauty. However, this nice little clip from a Pathe newsreel from the summer of 1941 of the village of Meopham in Kent, includes the site of con trails as part of its overview of a picturesque rural landscape, so thoroughly had they become embedded into the national consciousness by this point

Finally, although I've mainly been writing about the con-trail as it was seen from a English point of view, there is a rather nice passage from Flight to Arras by the French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery about the other side of the equation:

“The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside. The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf… The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport. Gossamer threads set me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. “… As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.”

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Visions of Avebury - Equivalents for the Megaliths

“On a still moonlit night Avebury seems peopled by ghosts, and the old church and cottages of the village seem new and insignificant.” John Betjeman

Amongst my haul of Christmas goodies I got a couple of DVDs – the 1970s children’s tv series Children of the Stones and a set of BBC Christmas ghost stories from the 70s. The latter included Stigma, the first modern ghost story to have been filmed for these series. Both Stigma and Children of the Stone are set in and around the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire and involve the interplay between the past and present articulated through and by the stones themselves. Pleasingly a key plot element of Stigma is based on the true discovery of a medieval man buried or crushed beneath one of stones, which nicely brings together the deep prehistoric past, the medieval past and modern life. Crucially, the fact that people still live among the stones is central to the conceits of both programmes. Prehistory is shown to inhabit the present day.

I’ve been intrigued how these very 1970s engagements with the Neo-Romantic aesthetic contrasts with how the Avebury stones were portrayed by major artists in the 1930s and 40s. The key figure here is Paul Nash- one of my favourite artists and one who inhabited the grey area between English surrealism and the Neo-Romantic school of the late 30s and 40s, although he was a little older than the key figures in both traditions. He has been called a ‘green surrealist’, which is a term I like.

He first came to Avebury on a visit in 1933 and took a series of photographs showing the stones. He clearly had a very strong response to the site. He wrote:

“The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak. Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in the cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were always wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them, I shall always remember them ….. Their colouring and pattern, their patina of golden lichen, all enhanced their strange forms and mystical significance.”

Although in this passage he talks about the process of time covering up the stones, he does not mention the presence of the village that overlies the Avebury Henge. His emphasis on the natural world and suppression of the modern world can be seen in another passage

“'Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high ... A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.'

Interestingly, he visited at a time when the stones were being restored and the vegetation cleared. He met Alexander Keiller and they seem to have got on, though he later wrote ““Avebury may rise again under the tireless efforts of Mr Keiller but it will be an archaeological monument, it will be as dead as a mammoth skeleton in the Natural History Museum” – he seems to have been very antipathetic towards the impact of the modern world.

His visit and his photos went on to form the basis for a series of paintings based on Avebury – Druid Landscape, Landscape of the Megaliths , the Circle of Monoliths, Nocturnal Landscape and most abstractly Equivalents for the Megaliths. The interesting thing about these pictures is that they entirely ignore the built environment of Avebury, the village, the manor house and the church. Instead he strips back these accretions to present a purer vision of the stones. He is focussing on them almost entirely in terms of form rather than in terms of their human dimension. The only hint of human activity is in the presence of plough furrows that run up to (and under?) one of the monoliths in Landscape of the Megaliths.

Nash was not the only painter of this period to paint Avebury. John Piper was also very interested in prehistory- indeed he had written a short spread in the art magazine Axis about aerial photography of prehistoric sites. In his paintings of Avebury, he too pushed away the village, although he didn’t entirely excise it like Nash did. In his painting Avebury Restored the tower of the church is just visible in the background. In another meditation on prehistoric Wiltshire he showed Avebury and the Avenue, but the modern world only appears in the form of the skylined obelisk that is the Landsdowne Monument on Cherhill Down. I’m intrigued how Piper and Nash both seem to push out the modern (or indeed anything not prehistoric) in their depictions of Avebury- they seem interested in the deep past, but not in its juxtaposition with later periods. This lack of juxtaposition is surprising as it is this placing of the past against the present that is often seen as one of the defining aspects of 1940s Neo-Romanticism- one thinks of Eric Ravilious’s images of chalk hill figures, seen from seen from trains or behind barbed wire. In fact Myfanwy Piper (wife of John) writes of Nash in 1937 “He has no interest in the past as past, but the accumulated intenseness of the past as present is his special concern and joy”. I would contend though that there is surprisingly little evidence of this present in Nash’s Avebury work. It also contrasts with the folk-horror/uncanny sensibility of Children of the Stones and Stigma which seems to explore the past within the present and is might perhaps be seen as a very 1970s reworking of Neo-Romanticism for a nuclear age.

Postscript: Nash wrote “A stone walking over a field” on the back of one of the prints of the Avebury stones he gave to a friend- I like to think this presaged the Doctor Who story-line Stones of Blood, which is set on a prehistoric stone circle and has walking megaliths.