Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Notes from a small(ish) Island #1

 After three days on Holy Island I've finally found a chance to sit down and pull my thoughts together. I'll write about the academic content of the project at a later date, but I want to explore the more personal side of things first. Being involved in a new project is an exciting but nerve-wracking experience. The new work on Lindisfarne has the added challenge of working with new partners and a new team. Although we've only finished our first proper day's excavation today (Monday), most of us have been on the island since Saturday afternoon. I've known Brendon and Lisa from DigVentures for a while, but I've not previously met the rest of the team; there's new names to learn (and forget) and with any new group of people, there is always that cautious process of getting to know individuals and tentatively working out the social and personal dynamics. Happily, everyone seems to get on well, but with a big group in a small dig house, the scope for tensions revolve as much around getting the washing up done and taking muddy boots off, as the practicalities of the archaeology.

The first day, Sunday, was mainly taken up with getting everything set up – the dig 'incident' room was made ready, we got some training on the new GPS, and I gave everyone an overview of the island's history and archaeology. There is also the important process of getting to know the island- where does the best coffee? [Pilgrim's Coffee House] What's the best beer in the Crown and Anchor? [Secret Kingdom] What on earth is 'broon fish'? [battered smoked haddock!] Anyone who has ever been involved in a running a dig will also be familiar with the almost obsessive checking of weather forecasts and looking fretfully at cloud cover. Visibility during my walking tour of the island was so poor, we couldn't even seen the mainland, let alone the Farne Islands or Bamburgh Castle.

On Monday, we finally began the topsoil strip. Watching the JCB slowly take off the topsoil and the bucket reveal the first site of underlying layers there is always a sense that this is the moment of truth. Truthfully, I always veer between wild optimism and complete pessimism. Particularly in a crowd-funded research excavation, one can't help feel the pressure of expectation from the dig team and the other supporters of the project. It's hard not to feel a little disappointed when the strip fails to reveal perfectly preserved, clearly early medieval structural remains, even though you know this was never going to happen.

Happily though, there are 'things' to be seen; there are confused patches of rubble, spreads of shell and clusters of stone hinting at walls or floors. We don't yet know their date or function, but there is a sense of relief that we do have something and the volunteers will have something to excavate over the next fortnight.

Today, finally we started with the main dig team, mainly comprising our crowd-funders, but also a handful of Durham students. Again, there are new names to get to grips with and new dynamics to work out. Some have dug before, some have never been on an archaeological site in their lives. Once we get them in the trench, we start to see their different approaches. Some people are nervous and tentative, worried they'll damage the archaeology. Others can't wait to get properly stuck in and move spoil on a large scale. We need to chivvy the slow one and reign in the enthusiasts. Slowly, but surely, the surfaces start to get cleaned and finds made. Some pottery is clearly 19th century, but some looks earlier, perhaps medieval; there are bits of animal bone, and excitingly a couple of human teeth. There is enough coming up to keep people enthusiastic and engaged during the long afternoon.

One of the distinctive aspects of this project that is already making itself apparent is the public engagement. One of the main footpaths across the island is straddled by two of our trenches. There is a large footfall, with almost all the passers-by stopping, even if only briefly, to look over our fences. Some just stare and move on, others leap in with questions- what are you looking for? Why are you digging here in particular? How long are you here for? Most are visitors, but we've lots of interest and support from the islanders too. As the day goes on, we really start to appreciate the challenge of talking and engaging with all the people interested in our work, whilst also keeping an eye on volunteers and the archaeology itself.


Tomorrow, we're back in the trenches, the project will start to get into its rhythm. Workers will know where to go, who to speak to when they are stuck – the dig will start to hum.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Archaeology Blogging Carnival- Grand Challenges Part 2: Lives in the Landscape

Haymaking- Tristram Hillier (1943) (C) York Art Gallery
 a landscape without people
This is the second of my two contributions to the Archaeology Blog Carnival which is asking us to outline what we think are the grand challenges for our field of archaeology. I've already written one entry outlining one of the big challenges I envision for the archaeology of early medieval Britain, my main academic stamping ground. However, like a lot of archaeologists, my wider interests span traditional chronological divides. Over the last decade or so I've become increasingly interested in post-medieval archaeology, particular the 18th and 19th century.

A lot of the current research on the archaeology of this period focuses primarily on urban and industrial sites. This is for a number of reasons; firstly, there is a long tradition of industrial archaeology as an independent sub-discipline, originally focussing on technological history but increasingly expanding its focus to encompass the wider social context of industry. Second, much of the actual excavation on later post-medieval sites tends to be carried out in a development-control (cultural resource management) context, which widely occurs on urban and brown-field sites, for example, the important work by the York Archaeological Trust on the former Victorian slums at Hungate.

When it comes to the rural archaeology of this period the situation is very different. Despite there being a very well-established tradition of landscape archaeology in Britain, which can trace its origins to the work of pioneers such as WG Hoskins, this does not engage as extensively with the post-medieval period. Crudely speaking, the amount of work carried out trails of significantly in the post-Enclosure era, once the medieval common fields have been parcelled up, a process which was more or less complete by the early 19th century (although it did carry on later than this). This landscape approach largely draws on field survey and analysis of documentary and cartographic sources with relatively little excavation. In fact, when I was carrying out an audit of post-medieval archaeology in north-east England for the local Research Framework, I could not find a single example of an excavated post-medieval rural building in the region.

The danger of this landscape approach is that it is easy to lose track of the people, particularly the rural poor or indeed anyone except estate managers, farmers and land-owners, the people who make the decisions about how landscapes are shaped. Even this group often end up being viewed as passive pawns of wider social processes (high farming- enclosure- agricultural depression) – although I would single out the really useful fine-grained analysis of 18th and 19th century landscape and farm development in Northumberland by Ronan O'Donnell as an exception

What we are missing is any attempt to really explore the lived lives of rural workers (and I’d include within this category the population of small country towns). To get a sense of the richness of day to day life that we are missing read Flora Thompson’s Larks Rise to Candleford, her account of growing up in the North Oxfordshire countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although it has acquired a rather ‘chocolate box’ reputation (not helped by the recent execrable BBC adaptation), it is actually far grittier than many people give it credit for. Reading it, one gets a first-hand sense of the complexity and light and shade of rural life. It talks about poverty, agricultural wages, food, music, employment, upholding traditions and breaking the law. The same can be said about Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie which deals with a marginally later period in the Cotswolds. Both books are of course literary creations rather than ethnographic studies and suffer from selection and omission (a bit like the archaeological record…). Nonetheless they are first-hand accounts of rural society which put lives in the landscape.

Family outside their cottage, Uffington- 1916
Henry Taunt (C) Oxfordshire County Council
My grand challenge for archaeologists is to try and encompass the complexity and fullness of rural life in the post-medieval period. We have no shortage of material, yet so it is so little exploited. For example, the grave yard survey is a staple of local heritage societies and student projects, yet I have come across very few studies that have attempted to combine the rich data about burial derived from these surveys with local census data, which can tell us about the status, profession and place of residence of those buried in the churchyard. This could then be combined with building recording which can tell us about their domestic space and even excavation, which has the potential to address patterns of consumption and production. If one was careful with the selecting the right village, there may be many other resources available, such as estate records or photographic records. For example, in an area close to my heart, the Vale of the White Horse in North Berkshire, there is a great photographic legacy through the work of the late Victorian photographer Henry Taunt, the collections of rural artefacts made in the first half of the 20th century by Lavinia Smith, records of folk traditions and folk songs (including some made by the noted archaeologist Stuart Piggot who retired to Uffington). There is ample scope for a truly holistic study of rural life that goes beyond landscape study or archaeology but takes the best of all disciplines and, in particular, embraces the potential of biography of people, places and things to explore rural England in all its diversity.

It is easy to get dewy eyed over England’s rural past; there is a good, solid tradition of creating pastoral idylls for ourselves, and the hankering for a rural, pre-industrial past has a long genealogy encompassing William Morris, John Ruskin, the ruralist writers of the inter-war period, such as HJ Massingham and the Kinship of Husbandry, and can still be found today in outlets as diverse as the ‘vintage’ design movement, Country Living and the eco-economics of the Soil Association and the Green Party. Yet, as I remind my students when I’m teaching them about this period, one of the reasons why the industrial towns of Britain had such swollen populations was that rural life was one of such grinding poverty and limited horizons that industrial labour seemed the better option. I’d like to see archaeologist engaging with this difficult, unromantic, rural world making full use of the incredibly, yet under used archaeological, architectural and documentary record that is out there but yet to be fully utilised.
Morris dancers, Chipping Camden (Oxfordshire) Henry Taunt 1896
Splendid example of aspects of rural life and tradition not
traditionally engaged with by archaeologists

Having done some family history, like many people, I only have to go back four generations to find out that most of my ancestors were ‘ag labs’ (agricultural labourers) or working in associated trades (in my family’s case, mainly in the fields of North Buckinghamshire and South Oxfordshire).As I stated at the beginning of this blog, my main academic  focus has long been the early medieval period, but as I get older I am more and more seduced by the idea of telling the stories of the the Petts men and women cutting hedges, harvesting hay and making straw hats in the villages and fields of the East Midlands. Is this a grand challenge or a mid-life crisis...


Monday, 11 January 2016

Archaeology Blogging Carnival- Grand Challenges Part 1

Anglo-Saxon burial from West Heslerton
This blog entry is in responses to the blog carnival set by Doug’s Archaeology on The Grand Challenges for Archaeology, which asks  “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”

The first thing to say is that I'm glad that we are being encouraged to home in on our own personal domains within archaeology- the days when scholars like Gordon Childe could be personally familiar with more or less the entire prehistoric archaeology of Eurasia are long gone, and I suspect that we all struggle to keep on top of the literature within our own little disciplinary nests. I'm quite sceptical of the notion of pan-disciplinary grand challenges- they are either so vague as to be meaningless (e.g. social inequality; globalism etc.) or actually not really that pan-disciplinary at all (e.g. the origins of agriculture). I much prefer more localised, specific challenges which have the potential to shed more light on a smaller area.

In the UK we have an established tradition of Research Agendas – such as the Research Agendafor the North-East of England which I've been closely involved with or the excellent on-line Scottish ArchaeologicalResearch Framework (ScARF). These to some extent flag up the perceived priorities for the archaeology of local areas- and they are extremely useful and valuable tools. But they are often written from the perspective of what is possible and realistic in terms of future avenues for research – I want in my blogs to be a little more ambitious and think about the question from a slightly more blue sky perspective assuming (of course, incorrectly) that money / time is no object.
I am going to do two entries because my work straddles several chronological periods; in this entry I am going to focus in on the early medieval period which is perhaps my main stamping ground
From my perspective the big challenge is for early medievalists to get to grips with the potential of archaeological science related to population mobility.

For researchers on early medieval England, the twin issues of the Anglo-Saxon ‘migrations’ and the construction of ethnic identity continue to be a contested and lively subject for debate. Put very crudely, there is an ongoing debate about how England became Anglo-Saxon- was it a result of mass Anglo-Saxon immigration and population replacement or small-scale Anglo-Saxon immigration and acculturation of aspects of Anglo-Saxon society by the indigenous British population? Of course, within those two sides of the argument are a wide number of alternative perspectives and the debate is far more subtle and complex than my crude characterisation would suggest.

Over the last 10-15 years we have seen the increased intervention into this debate  by scholars using a range of scientific techniques , particularly bone chemistry (which has the potential to help identify where an individual spent time as a child) and DNA which has the potential to identify relationships between individuals and groups at a variety of scales – this can be done using modern populations and projecting inferences back into the past or increasingly using ancient DNA.  There was a hope that these techniques might have been a magic bullet which could clearly and unproblematically identify the extent of migration into England. However, inevitably the results have not been as clear-cut as everyone originally hoped. As a result there has sometimes been a dismissal of such techniques as unsatisfactory or pointless

My grand challenge is to see a massive increase in the use of these techniques and  crucially a major change in the questions we are trying to ask with them.

The first problem is that when we actually look at the number of sites where these techniques have been used, the figure is tiny- for early medieval England (5th-7th century AD) for example, bone chemistry has been used on a handful of sites – West Heslerton, Berinsfield and Wasperton with occasional work on individual burials. This work is very useful in telling us about population movement in individual cemeteries, but of very little use in unpicking the national picture. In early medieval England, the patterns of population movement and the shifting social dynamics across the country are likely to have been massively regionally variables and locally nuanced. The work of archaologists such as Sam Lucy has shown how cemetery rituals could vary widely between local cemeteries- there is no reason to assume the process of population movement would not be as equally as variable. Why should the pattern of population movement in North Northumberland be the same as that in Suffolk, or Herefordshire or the Upper Thames. Equally, variability may be reflected at a very local level too. The only way to address this is to have a large-scale campaign of bone isotope analysis rolled out across tens, maybe hundreds of early medieval cemeteries – allowing us to properly compare and contrast the variation in population patterns across England rather than extrapolate national patterns from a tiny, tiny, handful of sites.
A related challenge is to re-configure the way we talk about the movement of people within early medieval England (and Britain as a whole). Almost the entire debate is couched in terms of Germanic migrations – but there are two problems with this- first, it assumes that all probably population movement was Germanic- yet one of the key things that has out of the isotopic analyses of sites such as West Heslerton and Bowl Hole, Bamburgh, is that people were moving in other directions, including moving west to east as well as east to west. For example, the isotopic analysis of West Heslerton shows as many if not more individuals ending up in the cemetery who had their origins west of the Pennines as east of the North Sea. Yet, because ultimately we take our narratives and hypotheses from Bede and Gildas (quite understandably) we never really address the extent of this alternative direction of travel.

A second problem is we tend to assume all population movement is some form of ‘migration’ and is (a) deliberate (b) long-distance and large-scale. Yet there are lots of other ways in which people might move from their place of origin. For example, there is forced movement through the slavery (for example Patrick’s initial visit to Ireland) and also both local and long-distance movement through other social mechanism such as marriage, internal colonisation or fostering.
It would be great to see for example, a focused campaign of both Ancient DNA and bone chemistry on a regional group of cemeteries, such as those from the Upper Thames valley. This would obviously have the scope to tell us about the extent of population movement from the Anglo-Saxon homelands, but it would also have the potential to tell us as much about the movement of individuals from other parts of Britain (Cotswolds, Midlands, East Anglia) into the area, and also drilling down more closely allow us to address issues about kinship and marriage patterns. Attempts have previously been made to identify related individuals within a cemetery through non-metrical trades, but think of the potential to identify family groups over several generations- identifying individuals marrying in and potentially the movement and budding off of elements of the kin group through fostering elsewhere or marrying into nearby families. Looking at a slightly later period, wouldn’t be great to look at an early medieval monastic cemetery for example and be able to pick up not just whether the monks were local or not, but the extent of inter-relationships between them- were they being drawn from the same family groups or was there far wider recruitment?

Combining this with other elements of grave analysis, this would allow us also to radically increase the subtlety of our understanding of burial rites, the representation of individuals in death and even social mobility. So, rather than obsessively chewing over Germanic Migration let’s try and think about population mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the very local to the international.
Of course there are immense practical challenges- the cost would be astronomical and time / lab resources would be significant. So much of the funding of archaeological science focuses on what is innovative and new at the expense of consolidation and wider application of an existing, effective techniques. Also, we would need to be very careful in couching the questions and interpreting the answers. In the past, some scientific studies were great at identifying patterns but far less effective in providing the contextual analysis, as there was often a lack of archaeologists involved at all stages of the project, although this tendency is improving.  Equally, it is axiomatic that there is clear distinction between biological relationships, geographic origin and ethnic identity. This new data certainly would not be a short cut or magic bullet answering all our underlying questions about early medieval England, but what it would do is open up a lot more very very interesting debates.


Thursday, 17 December 2015

Distribution of English mumming plays: some first thoughts

Mumming play- Wantage - 26/12/13
 A couple of years ago I gave a paper at a post-medieval archaeology conference in Leicester which conveyed some general thoughts about morris dancing costume and regalia (a topic which I've explored in other blog posts). The paper was mainly focussing on the way in which costume was used and its wider social importance. I was primarily looking at the Cotswold morris tradition of the South Midlands, rather than taking a wider national perspective on traditional public dance traditions. I touched briefly on the fact that there are some records of high-status families paying for new kit for a local morris side to perform at a family event. This led Ronan O'Donnell to ask a perceptive question about whether morris sides were more common in 'closed parishes', that is to say parishes in which most or all of the land was owned by a very small group of landowners, often only a single family, as opposed to 'open parishes' which had multiple landowners. This issue of the number of landowners has importance beyond a simply economic one, as it had consequences for a range of other factors including provision of social support and religious freedom.

Although I haven't pursued the open-closed question in detail here, Ronan's question did make me start to think about the wider social context of morris dancing and other traditional practices. Whilst Cotswold morris has a fairly circumscribed geographical distribution with few outliers, I've been thinking about the social context of a related tradition, the mumming play, a form of stylised, traditional drama performed at certain seasons, particularly Christmas. The cast were usually young men or children and in some ways it constituted a form of structured, socially sanctioned 'begging'.

Distribution of mumming players based on Chambers 1933


Because of the underlying corporate nature of the practice I was toying with the idea that there might have been a relationship between the distribution of mumming plays and the spread of the most cooperative forms of agriculture. I tried playing with this idea and plotted the distribution of known mumming traditions (mainly 19th century records) against the English rural 'central province' which is essentially the region of English landscape that was dominated by the medieval open field system, a form of farming that involved a significant level of co-working and corporate responsibility, and a consequence, a high degree of settlement nucleation.

When plotted against each other, there is certainly a broad correlation, but it was not terribly precise – clusters of mumming plays can be seen outside the central province, particularly Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex – there are other outliers, notably a small cluster in Cheshire and a couple in Cornwall.

Distribution of mumming plays plotted against the
main landscape provinces
(from Roberst and Wrathmell 2003)
Instead I tried another variable- and plotted the degree of settlement nucleation against the distribution of mummer plays. The precise variable I used as the Hamlet Dispersion Score calculated for Wrathmell and Robert’s Atlas of Rural Settlement in England (2003), which plots the extent to which settlements were dispersed or scattered or alternatively clustered into nucleated points. In the map, the most nucleated areas as blue and the most dispersed areas are pink/red.

This plot fits the distribution of mummers plays much better and encompasses the Hants, Sussex, Berkshire outliers. There are two things to note though- it works less well for the Cheshire group and the Cornwall group. In the latter case,  Cornwall has a very different tradition of traditional folk drama that I need to be explore more and it may be that there are different influences at play here. I still need to mull over the Cheshire examples.

Distribution of mumming plays plotted against
settlement dispersion scores
(from Roberts and Wrathmell 2003)
However, I would draw some tentative initial conclusions. The distribution of mumming is more related to settlement type rather than perhaps the underlying pattern of agricultural organisation (although of course the two are related). It does show that the basic distribution of mumming is not random and does seem to be influenced by other factors, most likely nucleated settlement. This makes sense; a tradition that is a broadly cooperative venture bringing together a peer-group is more likely to be carried out in a context where that peer group is able to interact on a fairly regular basis and where there is the social and physical space for this kind of venture to develop. These conditions are less likely to be met where settlement patterns are dispersed and consist mainly of isolated farms and hamlets rather than nucleated villages.

So where do we go from here. I think the key challenge is to avoid simplistic models of causation; these traditions although occurring within a broad system of constraints and affordances provided by settlement type are likely to also have been influenced by other factors operating on a far more local and contingent basis. For example, it is apparent that there is a large area of nucleated settlement where there are no significant records of mumming – particularly Bedfordshire, most of Northamptonshire and most of Buckinghamshire. Whilst nucleated settlement may provide a suitable context of mumming it is clearly not the cause of it.

At the moment I'd like to take this forward in two ways – first, I want to return to Ronan's initial question about 'open' and 'closed' parishes and see whether there is any relationship between the kind of social practice represented by mumming and the socio-economic structure of the parish within which they occur. Are there certain scenarios beyond a crude measure of nucleation that might constrain or enable these traditions? Secondly, I'd like to try and really drill down and look at the social and physical context of mumming in a number of case study areas. I'd envisage this might include looking at the social origins and networks of those taking part in mumming – Keith Chandler’s brilliant social history of morris dancing in the South Midlands Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles is an inspiration here. But I’d also like to try and physically map the residence patterns of participants and trying to understand precisely where performances took place. Obviously, this will rely on finding traditions where there is enough evidence to start answering this question, but my current plans are to take two groups of plays as case studies- those in York area and those in South Oxfordshire, areas. We shall see what we shall see....


Some practical notes: I got my list of mumming play traditions from EK Chambers English Folk Drama- it dates to the 1930s and there are certainly more recent additions to the corpus, but not enough to change the overall distribution. The distribution of the central province and settlement nucleation are from Brian Roberts and Stuart Rathbone's Atlas of English Rural Settlement with the digital data taken fromthe HE website. The data was all brought together fairly crudely on Google Earth, but I hope to move this to QGIS given some time



Saturday, 31 October 2015

“A person of antiquarian pursuits”: M R James and archaeology

Crucially though his engagement with physical remains and his own personal knowledge of sites and monuments pervades his fiction. Whether his appreciation of mid-19th century local antiquaries in View to a Hill, his local knowledge of the excavations at Snape intruding into a Warning to the Curious or his allusions to sites such as the sea-swallowed medieval port of Dunwich or the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Cambridge under other names in Oh Whistle, James drew on an understanding of the structures of archaeological culture and society from his position in Cambridge, as well as using his own personal knowledge of historical sites and medieval monuments particularly going  back to his East Anglian childhood.

This is the text of a paper I gave at the MR James conference (M R James and Modern Ghost Story) in Leeds earlier this year- it's unedited, unreferenced (and pretty much unproofread), but hopefully will be of interest to some- if you are interested in a copy of the accompanying Powerpoint just drop me a line:

The material past looms large in the ghost stories of M. R. James. In almost all his stories, the supernatural crisis is catalysed or channelled through a physical object, sometimes a manuscript  or book (The Tractate Middoth), sometimes an image (The Mezzotint) and sometimes physical objects, as diverse as a bone whistle, a dolls house or a strip of wallpaper. Although James’ academic work was primarily focused on the study of text, both as editions and as physical manuscripts, it also engaged widely with physical objects, particularly sculpture, stained glass and wall paintings – what Monty himself described as ‘Christian archaeology’. As well as this interest in the materialised past, practitioners of the study of the past, archaeologists and antiquarians, also make regular occurrences in his stories, some simply as supporting cast (the FSA in An Episode of Cathedral History; the archaeologist in ‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to you my lad’or  the doomed barrow digger, Paxton in ‘A Warning to the Curious’. In this paper, I want to draw out and cotnextualise MR James engagement with archaeology. Exploring his own direct and indirect engagements with the emerging discipline in the later 19th and early 20th century and also highlighting the ways in which he harnessed his engagement with archaeology in his ghost stories.
Tracing its origins back to scholars of the 16th and 17th century, such as William Camden (1551-1623) and John Leland (1503-1552), the early study of the physical remains of the past had been dominated by an antiquarian perspective. Early writers, drew on the chorographic tradition, structuring studies by region or area – taking a broad approach, recording genealogical information, information about important buildings, snippets of folklore, natural wonders and unusual objects, this encyclopaedic approach revelled in juxtaposition and collation, but made little attempt at either chronological or regional synthesis. Often drawing on local informants, early antiquarians carried out little fieldwork beyond the occasional illustration of significant castles or abbeys. However, these were the first sustained engagements with the recording of antiquities- and crucially marked the beginning of the rediscovery of the middle ages, treating pre-Reformation texts and monuments as both worthy of study but also bracketing them off as belonging to antiquity allowing a narrative of rescue and rediscovery to be sustained. A prime example of this can be seen in the work of the antiquary John Aubrey- like many early antiquaries he was a polymath – best known outside archaeology for his biographical sketches ‘Brief Lives’ he published widely on folklore, place-names, antiquities and with his Monumenta Britannica he was a key figure in trying to understand major prehistoric monumental complexes, such as Avebury and Stonehenge. However, whilst this prehistoric material dominate the modern perception of his archaeological interests, he was also a key figure in developing approaches to the medieval past- his unpublished, yet influential, Chronologia Architectonica of 1670 was an attempt to develop a chronological typology of medieval architecture and crucially contained not just physical descriptions but illustrations drawn by Aubrey himself in the same way he surveyed in his plans of prehistoric sites.
The long 18th century saw the development of the antiquarianism, both in terms of scope and methodology but also its institutional structure. First, the level of recording and fieldwork developed- building on the methods of Aubrey and others. Excavation whilst often exceptionally crude by modern standard was increasingly carried out- classically on prehistoric burial mounds. Major early excavators included figures such as the Reverend Bryan Fausett (1720-1776) and the Reverend James Douglas (1753-1819) – the former opened over 700 barrows, prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon over his career. The 18th century thus saw an increasing emergence of prehistory as a distinct sub-field, comprising both standing monuments and excavated remains.  However, whilst figures such as William Stukely – more commonly associated, like Aubrey, with work on prehistoric sites, did record medieval buildings, medieval archaeology was treated as a topic for which the main resource were standing buildings rather than a field for subsurface intervention. The motif of barrow breaking was however used by James in A Warning to the Curious although in this case in the context of an Anglo-Saxon rather than a prehistoric barrow.

A major development for the wider field of antiquarianism was the establishment of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1707 and receiving its royal charter in 1751. This provided an institutional focus for antiquarian pursuit in England- as well as crucially being responsible for a series of journal – most notably Archaeologia and Vetusta Monumenta  - both of which published from the very beginning material on medieval topics.

Rather topically, one of the few areas where medieval antiquities were actively investigated through excavation was the graves of kings. Particularly under the stimulus of Richard Gough, Diretor of the Society of Antiquaries from 1771 to 1797. In 1774, the tomb of Edward I was opened in Westminster Abbey revealing both the body and associated grave goods, Edward IVs grave in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, was opened in 1789, and King Johns grave excavated in Worcester Cathedral in 1797. This investigation of graves clearly finds resonances in some of James’ stories, particularly An Episode of Cathedral History- but as we shall see he also later had a more direct involvement in the opening of medieval graves.

The later Victorian saw changes in emergence of deep time- scientific understanding of prehistory particularly due to increase of excavation – drawing on notions of social evolution ultimately derived from Darwinism, but also principles of stratigraphy derived from geology, all of which profoundly influenced the development of archaeology as discipline. But the mid 19th century also saw the establishment of an increasingly structure academic framework for the archaeological study of the past. Crucially this was the great period of the flowering of national, county and local archaeological societies. A key moment was the establishment of the British Archaeological Association in 1843, in reaction to a perceived over emphasis on earlier periods of history by the SA, as well as a perception that it was London-biased and aristocratic. The aims of  the BAA were clearly “for the encouragement and prosecution of researches into the arts and monuments of the early and middle ages” . Amongst its aims were the organisation of an annual archaeological congress, along the model of the French Congrès Archéologique or the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There was a rapid schism however, partly along class lines. The majority of the founders of the BAA were from trade backgrounds, but following a squabble about publication, a new Archaeological Institute was founded by a faction led by Albert Way of a notably differing class complexion.  Despite the increased ‘professionalization’ of the archaeology and antiquarian studies in this period, the remit of both societies was still very wide. The first volume of the Archaeological Journal published by the Archaeological Institute including papers on Roman London, Observations on the Primeval Antiquities of the Channel Islands, On Anglo-Saxon Architecture and, and I quote ‘The Horn-shaped Ladies' Head-Dress in the reign of Edward I “. The term ‘archaeology’ still had a wide semantic range and in the words of Chris Gerrard “the relationship between antiquarianism, historians, architects and archaeologists was uncertain territory”.
The mid-19th century saw a huge range of other societies being established at this time – both historical- the Surtees Society 1834, the Early English Text Society 1864, the Harleian Society 1869, and archaeological -By 1886 there were some 49 county and local archaeological societies, including the Cambridge Antiquarian Society of which James became a member. It is to this kind of society that Baxter, the antiquary, in A View from a Hill seems to have belonged. The protagonist “spend a morning half lazy, half instructive in looking over the volume’s of the County Archaeological Society’s transactions in which were many contributions from Mr Baxter on finds of flint implements, Roman sites, ruins of monastic establishments – in fact most Departments of archaeology.”. In the story, Baxter was the local watch maker, and this reflects an important aspect of the widening of archaeology as a sphere of research, a process of social democratization. Even as early as the early 19th century, not all antiquarians were of aristocratic, gentry or ecclesiastical backgrounds. William Cunnington, the important early 19th century field worker was a local merchant.
A facet of many of these early societies was an increasing emphasis on campaigning to preserve and protect historic monuments- something which was not within the constitution or ambition of the Antiquaries. Despite the rampant medievalism of mid-Victorian society, with the emergence of Gothic as a natural architectural style with figures such as Pugin and Gilbert Scott in the vanguard of this taste-making, historic monuments were increasingly under threat. Indeed, it is this very resurgence of medievalism that led to a sustained attack on the historic fabric of Britain’s churches. The Oxford movement with its aim to revive and renew traditional and  more Catholic styles of worship led to an assault on the interiors of medieval  churches with later features regularly removed and stripped back to achieve an allegedly more authentic, medieval style. This movement was motivated by an enthusiasm for the medieval – the aims of the Cambridge Camden Society, so closely associated with this thrust, were “to promote the study of Ecclesiastical Architecture and Antiquities and the restoration of mutilated Architectural Remains”. However, the followers of the Camden society and its Oxford counterpart, the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture did great harm to the historic interiors of British parish churches. Despite both his loyalties to the Victorian world  (remember if you please that I am a Victorian by birth and education…”)and his love of the medieval, James’s attitude to this medievalism was one of ambivalence. His preferred architectural style appears to have been neo-Classical, and the unconstrained and insensitive removal and reordering of the 17th and 18th century interiors of medieval cathedrals to be replaced by neo-Gothic furnishings is at the core of An Episode of Cathedral History, and the fragment of medieval stall and its associated paper message presumably came to the knowledge of the narrator following their removal from the cathedral. It was in reaction to such destruction thatWilliam Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, although the views of the ‘anti-scrape’ as it became known were not always popular.
A wider concern about the destruction of historic and archaeological monuments reached parliament and steered by Sir John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, in 1882, the Ancient Monuments Protection Act was passed. Lubbock was an important figure in the development of prehistoric archaeology in Britain – heavily influenced by social Darwinism, he was writer of some of the first major syntheses of the development of prehistoric society, coining the terms Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. If the name Lubbock rings a bell for many of you, it most likely because one of the early memoirs of M R James was written by Samuel Gurney Lubbock – a nephew of John Lubbock. Monty was also friends with John Lubbocks sons, Harold and Eric. He certainly visited the Lubbock family home, where he met Baron Avebury’s second wife, Alice Pitt-Rivers, daughter of Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, another towering figure in late Victorian archaeology.

But how does MR James relate to this wider development of archaeological endeavour in the later 19th and early 20th century?

As a child he wrote to his father that he wanted “above all things to make an Archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk, to get everything I can for my museum” and later that he planned to “prosecute my archaeological studies at the Guild-Hall library in the holidays”. Growing up in rural Suffolk he lived in an area with a strong antiquarian tradition – indeed, the sons of one of the earlier vicar’s of Great Livermere “Honest” Tom Martin was a noted Suffolk antiquarian and the Suffolk Institute for Archaeology was founded in 1848. One possibility I  have not been able to confirm is that James knew about the excavation of the important Anglo-Saxon boat burial at Snape – probably of a member of the East Anglian royal family these burials and the associated barrows stood on the main road into Aldeburgh, where he spent much time as a child. The tumulus was obvious and is shown clearly surviving on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map.   It seems inconceivable that given his proclivities he was not aware of it and must have consciously or unconsciously fed into the plot of a Warning to the Curious, particularly given its setting in Seaburgh, clearly based on Aldeburgh.

Despite his occasional roof-climbing adventures, Monty had relatively little exposure to archaeology or ecclesiology at Eton. However, when he arrived at Cambridge he emerged into a city and university on the leading edge of the disciplinary development of archaeology. We might perhaps at this stage identify three key, distinct, but cross-fertilising streams in archaeology. Prehistoric archaeology, being pushed forward by Lubbock and others, medieval archaeology, which was still a blend of more scientific approaches but still heavily influenced by antiquarian and art historical perspectives, and finally, an area I’ve not yet touched on, classical archaeology. This latter field grew out of the world of classical studies and was profoundly text led and art historical, but with a commitment to excavation. Classical archaeology was in particular going through a phase of rapid development – in the decade leading up to his arrival at King’s in 1882, in particular the work of Schliemann at Troy had received international acclaim.

Cambridge University was the first British university to have an endowed chair in Archaeology- the Disney professorship set up in 1851; it required the holder to give three lectures a year for a stipend of £100. In O Whistle.. the ‘person of an antiquarian persuasion’ who encouraged Parkins to visit the site of the Templar preceptory was given, in a typical MR James in-joke, the name Disney. On his arrival at Cambridge, the holder was Percy Gardner, a specialist on Greek art , with close connections to the British Museum, but someone whose engagement in research was from the perspective of connoisseurship rather than fieldwork.
It is important to remember that MR James arrived at Cambridge to study the Classics tripos and he selected Classical Archaeology for special study in Part II of the Tripos: he wrote in 1885 ‘the field is so frightfully wide that I want all the time I can get, and not sanguine about the results. Sculpture, painting, coins, inscriptions, mythology, gems –each of these implies a good deal of reading”. Much of his learning was closely supervised by Charles Waldstein, American archaeologist and Olympic shooter who at the time was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum,. Monty was soon appointed Assistant Director eventually succeeding to the Directorship after Waldstein, although in this position he focused primarily on the acquisition of manuscripts rather than artefacts.

It was in the domain of classical archaeology that he made his first, and most significant, engagement in field archaeology. In 1887, Henry Babington-Smith an Eton and King’s College contemporary of Monty’s was granted £150 to engage in archaeological fieldwork in Cyprus  - under the auspices of the Cyprus Exploration Fund, set up with support of the Hellenic Society. However, he instead took up a civil service job as an examiner in the education department. Monty was asked to accompany the expedition at short notice. The overall project was led by Ernest Gardner, the younger brother of Percy Gardner (Disney Professor) – who was the Director of the British School at Athens- who had excavated with Flinders Petrie. Another participant was David Hogarth, who ended up as Director of the Ashmolean Museum, and was later a close friend of T E Lawrence, for whom he was first an academic influence in Oxford and then served alongside in the Arab Bureau during WWI. Whilst Gardner was an experienced excavator, Hogarth recalled in his memoirs that the others  ‘were so raw as not to know if there were any science of the spade at all’. The focus of the excavations was the Temple of Aphrodite, but also included exploring a number of other related sites. James had two roles, on site he seems to have led with the study of the epigraphy, transcribing and translating the many inscriptions found during the work. He also provided a typically Jamesian wide-ranging and eclectic overview of the historical source material for the site, drawing on Classical texts as well as medieval and post-medieval travellers’ stories. The final results were jointly published by James, Gardner and Hogarth in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, a series edited by Percy Gardner.

It is intriguing that despite his engagement in Classical archaeology through his involvement with the Pylos excavations, his role as Assistant Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and, by no means least, his education at Cambridge, that so little evidence of this makes its way through to his published ghost stories. Neither, despite, his friendship with the Lubbock’s does any evidence of an interest in prehistoric archaeology beyond a passing reference to prehistoric flints in a View from a Hill.

However, when it comes to medieval archaeology and physical remains, it is a different matter, both figure in the bulk of his academic work and his ghost stories. Despite being primarily remembered as a textual scholar, James’s research was not just dominated by an interest in producing edited texts, but also cataloguing -  this meant engaging with all aspects of the manuscript- not only its content, but also its physical appearance (i.e. illumination and marginalia) and provenance – in this respect it was as much an archaeological and art historical endeavour as a purely textual pursuit. In particular his fascination with hagiography and apocrypha intersected and fuelled a fascination for understanding and unpicking medieval iconography.

Surprisingly, at the age of 30, when the Disney Chair of Archaeology became empty, Monty gave serious thought to applying for it. His writings when thinking of applying and his application to the Vice Chancellor give a clear understanding of his perspective

“My object in all has been to trace, so far as I could, the historical development of sacred art from the point of view of selection and treatment of subjects, and to bring it into connexion with the literature and legends to which the artist had access/ In other words, I have worked with the view to applying to Christian art those methods which are applied nowadays to the remains of classical sculpture and painting”
 “During the last twelve years I have accumulated a very large mass of materials illustrative of Christian art and iconography. This material consists in the main of descriptions as full and accurate as I could make them, of sculpture, painted glass, pictures and illuminated manuscripts existing in a very considerable number of English and foreign churches, libraries, galleries and museums..”
This in fact fits in nicely with some of the important work done by earlier Disney chairs. The outgoing Professor George Forrest Browne had made a special study of runic stones, and published The Ilam Crosses (1889) and The Ancient Cross Shafts of Bewcastle and Ruthwell (1917). An earlier chair, Churchill Babington, had also contributed articles on medals, glass, gems and inscriptions to the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities.

What is surprising though in Monty’s unsuccessful application was how little he had published on topics even broadly related to medieval archaeology or art history. Whilst the modern publication requirements for an academic clearly did not apply in later 19th century Cambridge, this is a little disconcerting. It is hard not to draw notice to the thoughts of Parkin’s in Oh Whistle when he discovers the Templar Preceptory: ““Few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously. Our Professor, however, if he felt something of this mean desire, was also truly anxious to oblige Mr Disney”

In fact it was in 1892, the year of his unsuccessful application, that he made his first foray in text in church archaeology despite the fact that he had been clearly exploring church art for a long time. The subject was the sculpture on the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral- he had declared an intent to write a monograph on this following an undergraduate visit, but it clearly took him a long time to work up to it. The sculptural programme, heavily defaced by Protestant iconoclasm, was poorly understood.  Drawing on his knowledge of apocrypha he identified the programme and read a paper to the Royal Archaeological Institute in August 1892- this was subsequently published in the Archaeological Journal, and then reworked as monograph.
Whether or not provoked by his failed attempt at the Disney Chair the 1890s and early 20th century saw Monty issuing a series of papers on topics related to church art – particularly glass and wall painting- and all with a strong element of iconographic analysis – obviously recalling the detective work of the Reverend Somerton on deciphering the message in the stained glass from Steinfeld Abbey in the Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Most of this work was published in the Reports and communications of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society- of which James was a committee member until around 1910. Unlike many of local archaeological journals, due to its University connections the Reports and Communications had a far wider purview publishing on a wide range of international topics. For example, the 1903 volume which contained a paper by James on French tapestries, also include articles on Irish folklore, Roman Britain, Aztec civilisation, Estonian harpoons, and the ruins of Rhodesia. In addition to publishing papers, he read many more to the society which were not published- sometimes two on one night. 

His involvement with the Society was important as it meant he was mixing with other important archaeologists in Cambridge and beyond- including the Disney Professor. He also saw papers read by key figures in the developing world of medieval archaeology, such as W St John Hope, with whom he later collaborated and Frederick Bligh Bond, the  notorious archaeologist and psychic whose research at Glastonbury, was he claimed, steered by his spiritualist contacts with a medieval monk of the abbey, and ultimately led to his dismissal from the excavation committee- one wonders whether the conceit of using psychical powers to see the past partly inspired a View from the Hill.
In 1901, there were plans to bring relics claiming to be the bones of St Edmund to the newly constructed Catholic Westminster Cathedral. James, along with others, wrote to The Times arguing that the provenance of these items was dubious in the extreme. Whilst some of the correspondent appear to have had a confessional perspective, James simply took issue with the use and abuse of historical records.
It is not clear whether directly or indirectly provoked by this debate, excavations took place in the chapter house at Bury St Edmunds, with which MR James became involved. This resulted in the discovery of a series of burials which James, using textual sources identified – this fulfilled his predictions laid out in an 1895 monograph on the church in which he suggested
“...if a systematic excavation could be undertaken, as a result of the publication of this book, I should be better repaid thereby for the pains I have spent upon it than by any other means ... From the lie of the land I am inclined to believe that much of the crypt would be discovered, and that the sites of the Abbots’ tombs in the Chapter-house (including that of Abbot Sampson) might be ascertained (James 1895: 115).”. Following the excavations, he wrote to The Times re-iterating this identification- although this led to an anonymous rebuttal, also in the Letters page, followed by further support from elsewhere. Whatever the final conclusions, it is clear from the correspondence that he was not present during much of the actual excavation.
James was then again involved in a burial excavation in 1910, when the remains of Henry VI were investigated in St George’s Chapel in Windsor. This was led by W St John Hope, indefatigable excavator known for his “ungentlemanly burrowing” and his “robust” excavation techniques, who James knew from his Cambridge Antiquarian Society days. James was present in his capacity as Provost of Kings as a representative of the two colleges founded by Henry VI. The published description of the opening of the unmarked tomb in the presence of several officials, the cathedral architect and verger again calls to mind the opening of the mysterious tomb in An Episode of Cathedral History probably written a couple of years later in 1913.

Throughout his later life James continued to write about church art and archaeology although after 1910 he mostly stopped publishing in the Cambridge Antiquarian reports and communications. Instead he published his work as small monographs, such as his work on the sculptured bosses at Norwich cathedral , or in the Cambridge Review – as well as regularly writing to the The Times. He also increasingly published in the journal of the Walpole Society a new body established in 1911.
In some case, he revisited work he had previously explored- most spectacularly in the case of the Eton College Chapel wall paintings; as  school boy he had spoken in a debate declaring the destruction (as it was then though) of the paintings was ‘among the worst crimes of the century”- he had also given a paper on them in 1894 to the Cambridge Antiquarians. Finally after WWI as Provost of Eton he was able to effect the removal of the stall revealing the surviving paintings. Other work published on wall painting was done in collaboration with EW Tristram, who had been closely involved with the restoration of the Eton paintings and shows James willing to collaborate with talented younger scholars.

A final aspect of his archaeological publication are his two more popular guides- Abbeys (1926) and Norfolk and Suffolk (1930). Abbeys was a publication by the Great Western Railway and intended to help promote tourism within Britain. Both are extensively illustrated with line drawings and photographs and clearly aimed at the popular reader, and so untypically for James, there is very little critical apparatus. Instead as he willingly acknowledges he draws on his own notes, experiences and general guide books (although he does not mentioned the Bell’s Guides which get name checked in. In the short bibliography in Abbey’s he does mention antiquarian works, as well as work by colleagues and acquaintances such as Bligh Bond on Glastonbury. Whilst not academic publications they clearly key in James’ own fondness for church visiting and ecclesiology which went back to his boyhood. If not labours of love, they certainly can be seen as a contribution to the wider, more popular literature aimed at the interested amateur which James himself regularly used on his visits in Britain and beyond

To conclude- it is clear that James was engaged and informed by archaeology and archaeologist over his career. His academic research, something that Pfaff’s biography goes into in far greater depth, is at the intersection of palaeography, history, art history and archaeology. Despite his brief excursions into Classical archaeology as a young man, his engagement with the material remains of the past is solidly rooted in the medieval world. At its heart is a very text-led conviction that a thorough grasp of the textual sources – whether part of the cannon or more apocryphal or esoteric- is at the heart of the interpretation of medieval ecclesiastical decoration. Within the fairly limited scope of his archaeological work, figurative representation in ecclesiastical contexts, he was doubtless correct. He never attempted to move beyond the text, to address imagery in its own terms or widen his interests more widely into the study of military or economic history and archaeology.





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.