The other week I caught a documentary on Radio 4 by Stuart Lee about the mid-1970s children’s television programme Children of the Stones. Set around a stone circle that was clearly based on Avebury, it explored
For a children’s drama it was surprisingly sophisticated and surprisingly scary. It was a programme I must have seen some of when I was young, as I recognised some of it when I found it on Youtube, although it was pretty deeply buried in my memory. I remember more clearly a similar series called The Moon Stallion set around the White Horse at Uffington. Again, the plot revolved around magic and dark powers. One scene that particularly stayed with me was set in the chamber of Wayland’s Smithy, where the children see a vision of a terrible things, including a mushroom cloud. Both were set in a part of the world I have a strong attachment to and involved prehistoric archaeological sites. This has got me thinking about those early formative experiences which archaeologists (and normal people) go through that grabs them and makes them interested in a particular period. Given my memory of these programmes I’m surprised I was never grabbed by prehistory (despite a brief flirtation with the Iron Age). For me, it was always Roman Britain and the early middle ages. For the Romans it was a visit to the exhibition about Pompeii at the British Museum in *the mid-1970s which kicked it off, combined with regular childhood trips to the Roman shore fort at Richborough in Kent. Subsequent nagging persuaded my parents to take me to other Roman sites, such as Fishbourne and up to Hadrian’s Wall. However, although this inculcated an enthusiasm for Roman Britain, my interest in the Roman world stopped more or less at Calais (where to be honest, it has remained). I never got grabbed by the wider Roman world. I loved Peter Connolly’s wonderfully illustrated books on the Roman Army and at the age of 7 I was convinced that the funniest thing ever on god’s green earth was Carry On Cleo, but I still cannot get excited about Classical Rome (there is something so dreadfully Victorian about it).
I also remember distinctly the moment I got excited about the Anglo-Saxons – I was in infant’s school and we watched a school’s programme which included a series of dramatized episodes about Alfred and Guthrum – for some reason I was absolutely enthralled. In the months afterwards I recall drawing endless pictures of Vikings in breaktime, paying obsessive attention to drawing all the individual links in the chainmail. My school also had lots of copies by a series of novels about Vikings by Henry Treece, which I repeatedly read – there were also doubtless trips to the BM to look at the Viking stuff (I have very clear memories of the tremendous Vendel carved figure head that used to stand on the main stairs (maybe still does). I think the obsession was stoked by the inevitable adolescent flirtation with fantasy role playing and fantasy literature, although even at the time I found most of the fantasy literature pretty dire and was never swept away by LOTR. Instead, it was the writing of Susan Cooper and Alan Garner which was my particular favourite, undoubtedly because both Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence and Garner’s novels were set in this world, but one where other dimensions rubbed up close. Both also drew heavily on Arthurian and Celtic themes; it was certainly through reading the Owl Service that I came upon the Mabinogion. About the same time there was also a BBC series The Legends of King Arthur. It was set in a fairly Dark Age-esque milieu – the knights all wore helmets clearly based on the Sutton Hoo helmet.
It’s odd now, looking back as someone who spends their time thinking about the early medieval world, how far back the original seeds of this interest were planted. My daughter is now five and excited by Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, wants a Playmobil knights castle (or pirate set), has a toy bow and arrow, but wants to be a ballet dancer. Odds on she’ll still be obsessed with at least one of these things when she reached forty, which I find rather pleasing.
Although I come from the south of England, I’ve been living in the North for 13 years now; before that I’d spent three years in York as a student. I’ve married a York girl and my daughter has flat vowels. Despite all these ties binding me to the north I still think of a certain part of west Berkshire and south Oxfordshire as home. Maybe ‘home’ is the wrong word in this context. Of course, my true home is where my family is; that’s the place where I can’t wait to get back to after a long day at work or time working away. However, in recent years I’ve begun to increasingly miss the area where I grew up. Between the age of ten and my late twenties, apart from my temporary excursion to York for university, I spent most of my time in a triangle of land that runs from where the Kennet meets the Thames at Reading, west along the Kennet as far as Newbury and then from Newbury up the A34 to Oxford. There was a wider hinterland that headed west into Wiltshire, where I visited school friends and made early precocious trips with my parents to explore the archaeology. I still return regularly (but not regularly enough) to visit my parents, on the edge of the Vale of the White Horse and to see friends in Oxford. This area, particularly places along the Ridgeway, from Avebury along the scarp slopes of the Downs past Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse, have evolved over the last couple of decades to form landmarks in my own personal mythology.
I think there are many reasons for this increased nostalgia. Some are connected to the inevitable process of getting older. In recent years, I’ve had children and after years of temporary contracts got a permanent job. After a long time when I didn’t feel personally rooted to the North, I’ve realised that I’m here for the long-haul. There are ties here that go beyond my own personal preferences; I now have responsibilities and obligations. In the past, I always had the sense that work or life might take me back south, but now it’s clear I’m not going anywhere soon. On a wider scale, my extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived in an area to the south and east of Oxford, particularly along the south coast. However, as the generations pass, we, as a family, have slowly shifted our centre of gravity; the south coast is no longer part of my world and has slipped off the edge of my map.
The Welsh have a word hiraeth, which means an elegiac nostalgia for one’s homeland, which seems to be what I’m feeling at the moment. I’m not sure whether this is simply a process of regret for not visiting an area I love more often, or a process of mourning for a place I’ll probably never live in again.
Honestly, you write a blog post and then before you know it, six months have passed and it’s time to write another! Couple of things caught my eye recently- most recently was the government announcing plans to revive a series of road building schemes that had been shelved, seemingly funded somehow by a combination of local authorities and commercial capital (because that kind of thing has worked SO well in the past…). This seems to be part of some kind of on-going CONDEM campaign to cause chaos in local authority planning departments. Combined with HS2 and the fantastic policy of kick-starting the economy by allowing people to build slightly bigger conservatories, this is yet another policy seemingly intended to cause immense levels of contention at local planning level. It is tempting to suggest, only partially tongue in cheek, that the idea is to cause massive problems in local government planning so that they then have a strong argument for removing planning from local authority control and centralising it in Whitehall. I did rather depressingly hear a Tory MP on Any Questions the other week talking about placing underperforming planning departments into ‘special measures’; exactly the same term used to for ‘underperforming’ schools which are now forced out of local education authority control and into ‘academy’ status, with a line of accountability that runs straight from school to ‘sponsor’ to Whitehall- conveniently cutting out all those tiresome local authority people and democratically elected councillors. As I understand it, this policy of hacking away at local authorities and replacing them with Whitehall is called ‘localism’.
Anyhow, as an archaeologist, my hackles tend to rise and this kind of thing. On the whole, I tend to prefer not to see archaeological sites, historic landscapes, listed buildings etc destroyed – sorry, I’m just a bit funny like that. Indeed, another recent article in the paper that caught my eye was one that highlighted that 20 years have elapsed since the Twyford Down protests. This was the first of a series of environmental protests that kicked off in the early 1990s. The one that I saw up-close was the anti-Newbury bypass campaign- which saw the emergence of Archaeologist and Development as a pressure group. I well remember attending a rally at the site organised by the group.
The trouble is, and very few archaeologists I think admit this, is that whatever the pros and cons of road construction (both in environmental terms and as an act of Keynesian economic stimulus), archaeology is just another subcontractor of the construction industry. Due to the way in which archaeologist sits within the planning system, we have a commercial archaeological sector that exists to fulfil the developers legal obligations to meet concerns about the threat to archaeological deposits. Commercial fieldwork units competitively tender for work and derive most, or more usually all, of their income from such contracts.
We’ve seen this very clearly in recent years; the recession led to a collapse in construction and a consequent collapse in commercial archaeology, with extensive lay-offs and many businesses going under. If (and it is a big if) all these new road schemes go ahead, it will mean lots of jobs for those working in the commercial sector. Bad for archaeology but good for archaeologists – this is a paradox I’m not sure how to resolve. I am concerned for the environment and don’t want to see the damage wrought by the road building schemes, but I have many friends and colleagues who work in the commercial sector and for whom these kind of projects mean jobs. Which should take priority?
On recent episode of Radio 4’s obituary programme Last Word there were two individuals with connections with World War II. ‘Buck’ Compton was probably best known as one of the members of Easy Company, 101st Airborne whose war time story was turned into the successful television series Band of Brothers which followed their journey through the early days of the D-Day landings in Normandy through France and the Low Countries to the final days of the war to the east of the Rhine. The other person was the artist Leonard Rosamon, well-known for his work as an artist during World War II; his picture House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane is one of the iconic representations of the London Blitz.
It rather brought home to me, if I needed reminding, the extent to which the World War II generation is rapidly slipping away. In many ways it has been World War I that has been higher in popular consciousness recently. The final generation of veterans of the Great War have passed away over the last year, and the success of the book, play and now film War Horse and the book and tv series Birdsong have highlighted the horrors of the western front. This has consolidated the understanding derived from a thousand history lessons and GCSE set texts of the war poets.
Nonetheless,, I feel far more emotional on a personal level about the way in which World War II is passing into history as those who experienced directly are no longer with us. This is for a number of reasons. Partly this is a generational thing- personally, the passing of World War II generation is the passing of my grandparent’s generation, so it marks a profoundly personal transition as my own family’s shape and dynamic changes. Experiences and stories about the war are tied up with my own family relationships- I heard stories from relatives about their experiences on troop ships out to North Africa, loosing houses in the Blitz, watching the bombs fall on factories were partners were working, liaising with US troops in Somerset, and destroying bunkers on Heligoland. I grew up with pictures of grandfathers and great-uncles in uniform. Through this vicarious experience of the war (not to mention classic black and white war films), for me in World War II is still the war, my default image of what a war consists of. Although I was only 10 when the Falklands Conflict broke out, I remember being convinced that Britain would be bombed, because that was what war involved. I doubt if today, British ten year olds worry that the UKs latest overseas escapade will lead to mass aerial bombing of the UK mainland!
I’m also very aware of how visible the relics of World War II still are in the landscape. I grew up in in Berkshire, close to the Kennet Valley, one of the major ‘stop lines’ intended to halt the expected German invasion. The countryside was (indeed still is) littered with concrete pillboxes, it is only now I live in Yorkshire I realise how unusual this is. Now I live in Yorkshire I realise that these parts of my childhood landscape aren’t found across the country. However, up here, there are other reminders of the war. My daughter’s school was badly damaged by bombing and the local hall wherthe she went to playgroup had a memorial to the civillians killed when nearby houses were destroyed during the same raid. In town, in the Betty’s teashop there is a mirror onto which Canadian bomber pilots had scratched their names. The fields near where my wife grew up were used as a decoy site to attract the Luftwaffe from the city centre. Even doing my fieldwork in Northumberland, it is easy to stumble across reminders of the war. The broad flat sands of the North Northumberland coast were believed to have provided ideal landing beaches for German landings – I realised when I was driving around there last week that I was back in a landscape of pillboxes and I parked up by the line of concrete tank blocks that lines the coast near Holy Island.
I’m not going to be able to reach this year’s TAG in Birmingham this year, which is a shame as I’d really like to have gone to the session Psychoarchaeology being organised by Kenneth Brophy and Vicky Cumming.
I have always been surprised how little archaeologists have engaged with the notion of psychogeography. Like many movements, this is a rather protean notion, but it can be seen as a set of techniques that attempt to integrate subjective and objective engagement with the landscape with a particular emphasis on engaging emotionally and politically with what is perceived as capitalist space. With its emphasis on performance and the subversion of conventional historical and social narratives, it is not surprise that psychogeography grew out of the Situationist International of the 1960s.
Archaeology has over the last two decades seen a massive rise in interest in trying to understand the subjective experience of space, heavily influenced by Chris Tilley’s Phenomenology of Landscape one of the ur-texts in the phenomenological movement in archaeology. This perspective on human interaction with the environment, whether ‘natural’ or ‘designed’ has been one of the paradigms that have dominated archaeology in the 1990s and 2000s. One key sub-theme that has been particularly important is that of exploring how past societies interpreted and re-worked earlier monuments, or to put it another way, how they dealt with the past in their present. Initially, these approaches were developed by archaeologists working on prehistoric landscapes, particularly those of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Northern Europe. These were periods when landscapes were seen as being particularly ritualised and symbolically dense, with earlier monuments being continually reworked and re-appropriated for later purposes. This emphasis on the inter-relationship of monuments in the landscape and their subjective experience was something that had been presaged by those working outside mainstream archaeology in what might be called ‘earth mysteries’, a broadly New Age movement, which integrated the personal and spiritual points of view with an interest in folklore and mythology to produce densely allusive and textured readings of prehistoric monuments. Whilst operating in very different spheres, both communities were exploring similar themes.
Despite this close interest in the subjective experience of space, the world of phenomenological archaeology and earth mysteries have generally shown little engagement with psychogeography and vice versa (this is something highlighted in Bob Trubshaw’s recent review of Merlin Coverley’s book Psychogeography)in Time and Mind.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the lack of engagement has been the tendency for psychogeography to have been conceived as an essentially urban phenomenon – whether looking at Flaubert and Guy Debord in Paris or Peter Ackroyd in London, the key figures in the psychogeographic movement have been firmly cosmopolitan (although for individuals moving within world cities their landscapes are often strangely lacking in engagement with ethnicity). Even those who have ventured beyond the confines of the city centre, such as Iain Sinclair or fictionally at least, JG Ballard their milieu has been (sub-)urban; very few have obviously headed into the countryside. In his recent overview of psychogeography, Merlin Coverley claims that one of the key underlying definitions of psychogeography is that it is, in essence, urban. Perhaps underpinning this notion is that the market and capitalism are somehow at heart more urban than rural, an idea clearly at odds with modern perspectives on globalisation that highlight the capillary aspect of free-market capitalism.
What is exciting about the TAG session is that it sees archaeologist attempting to engage explicitly with the notion of psychogeography from an explicitly archaeological perspective (although given the fundamentally cross-disciplinary approach of psychogeography I’m not keen on the neologism ‘psychoarchaeology’). One key way in which archaeology can engage with this approach is through an emphasis on time depth, particularly through the idea of the ‘archaeological imagination’, the creative engagement with the material residue of past societies within the present world. A fundamental aspect of the ‘archaeological imagination’ is the juxtaposition of features from different periods within contemporary spaces, whether on the shelves of a museum or written in the landscape. However, whilst archaeologists have been good at looking at the past in other presents, we’ve not been so good at looking at the past in our own present. This may be because this sphere of action is seen, at heart, as not really ‘archaeology’, but ‘heritage’ or ‘cultural resource management’.
Nonetheless, at heart, what psychogeography and cognate approaches can offer us, is an alternative way to write about the past that moves beyond the traditional period or area survey (not that there is anything wrong with these). One new approach which is being increasingly explored is the notion of chorography – which entails thick description of place, drawing on a range of sources with an explicit engagement with the way in which people have experienced locations physically and emotionally – see Michael Shanks exploration of the idea of ‘deep mapping’.
A recent paper by Darrel Rohl, a graduate student here at Durham, flagged up a number of basic observations about chorographic writing: a focus on space/place, a multi-media approach, an engagement with the spatio-historical, the connection of past and present, an emphasis on the interdependence of human and environment, a de- and re-centering perspective, a present and recognizable authorial voice, a focus on experience, memory and meaning, a degree of native knowledge, requiring real emplaced experiences, a transdisciplinary perspective and it should be qualitatively and quantitatively empirical and critical. It is easy to see how many of these perspectives chime with the aims and objectives of many engaged in study and interpretation of the historic environment, and indeed how many of these approaches have a long genealogy within archaeology.
What surprises me, is the fact that there are so few works by archaeologists in the UK that actively engage in this approach to writing about the past. One reason may be that this kind of discursive work is not seen as sufficiently academic rigorous to past muster with the Research Exercise Framework – a fine example of the stifling impact of the academic audit culture on innovative ways of writing about the past. Whilst there are one or two recent works that very explicitly draw on both chorography and psychogeography, such as Mike Pearson’s wonderfully evocative In Comes I , they are often nonetheless undeniably dense and demanding reads. One of the positives about chorography and pyschogeography is that they provide exciting ways of engaging with the wider public, rather than just exchanging ideas within the academy.
Ironically, in recent years in Britain, there has been an upsurge of popular writing that can be clearly situated in the chorographic tradition. The increasing popularity of writers such as Robert MacFarlane, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin show a popular appetite for writing about the intersection between people and place. However, these writers have all been labelled as ‘nature writers’ rather than ‘history writers’, despite the fact that all three write about the relationship between the natural and the human environment and regularly engage with archaeological topics. They are part of a wider resurgence in writing about place, such as Madeline Bunting’s meditation on her childhood in North Yorkshire seen through the perspective of one small area of land (The Plot) is important. Alexandra Harris in a recent article for the New Statesman has drawn parallels between this and the rise of ‘localism’ as a political mantra within the UK political establishment, although she has emphasised the historical rather than ecological dimension to this movement. Despite the recent popularity in this literature, we can perhaps place the origins of the revival back in the mid-1990s with WG Sebald’s Suffolk journey in Rings of Saturn (1995) and Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1995). The latter, a wonderful example of alternative ways of movement within a landscape, including explicit collisions between the desire to move through natural landscapes and the overriding tendency to control access to natural resources even rivers.
The challenge thus remains for archaeologist to try and engage with these alternate perspectives to writing about the past and the present – the TAG session is a start, but the real challenge is to move them from the confines of the lecture theatre and onto the shelves of the nearest bookshop.
I’ve finally had a chance to see Tim Plester’s excellent documentary The Way of the Morris on DVD having missed it when it was briefly on general release.
The morris is one of England’s traditional dance traditions. It is also one that is very easy to mock – it is hard to take too seriously men garlanded in flowers and bells frolicking in country lanes. Indeed, morris dancing’s last significant cinematic outing Morris: A Life With Bells On went down the tongue-in-cheek road. However, this new film takes a far more thoughtful look at the dance. It is not a straight historical overview of the dance or a search for its origins. Instead, at its heart is the director’s changing personal relationship with the tradition in his home village. A native of Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, his father and uncle were closely involved in the revival of the dance in the village in the 1970s. Despite this, he himself had never been taken part and had seen his connection with Morris as a skeleton in his closet. Over the course of this film, he speaks to those involved in the resurrection of the dance during the folk rock revival of the early 70s (Fairport Convention; Morris On). He follows the village side to the war graves and cemeteries of the Eastern France, where all but one of those who danced before WWI were killed. Only one, Charlie Coleman, returned, and he could not face dancing again. Touchingly, he was still alive in the village when the dance was revived and able to see the new side dance outside his cottage. It is perhaps inevitable that Plester ends up taking his father’s bells, hanky and baldric and taking his place in the morris team.
It is easy to describe films such as this as ‘elegaic’, and it certainly does look back to the end of the old agrarian way of life finished off by the Great War. However, it is also optimistic and forward looking underlining the continued enthusiasm for the morris in the village reflecting a wider national renewed engagement with local dance traditions. One of the strongest aspects of the film is that it explores the over-simplistic distinction between the old unbroken traditions and the 20th century revivals - initially promoted by Sharpe, Neal, Karpeles, Butterworth et al in the Edwardian period but with later upsurges in popularity. In many cases, such as at Adderbury, where although the tradition was broken, the new revivals looked backwards to these sides building on personal, often familial connections and making use of the records and transcriptions made by Sharpe and in this case of Adderbury in particular, Janet Heatley Blunt [http://library.efdss.org/archives/aboutblunt.html]
Apart from a slightly mystical introductory sequence that sits a little ill at ease with the rest of the film, this film manages to tread the tricky balance of treating morris dancing seriously without being po-faced about it and acknowledging the slightly silly side of it all. It shows the dancers to be thoughtful and introspective about the dance and the reasons for its survival and the importance of preventing it becoming a slightly middle-class re-invention of an essentially working class tradition.
This is the personal blog of David Petts ( Lecturer in Archaeology at Durham University and AHRC/Radio 3 New Generation Thinker). It contains diverse digressions and rambles on English archaeology, landscape and folk traditions with the occasional scenic diversion.