Wednesday, 29 October 2008

York lightshow

Some pictures of the lightshow at St Mary's Abbey this week. Its difficult to do the event justice with these photos. It was spectacular.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Heartbreak Hill

Made a visit to the site of Heartbreak Hill, an allotment scheme created for unemployed ironstone miners just outside the village of Boosbeck. It was set up in the 1930s by Rolf Gardiner (see postings below) At this time, unemployment in this area was even higher than in other areas of the norht-east such as Jarrow Land was given for the allotments by Colonel William Wharton, owner of Skelton Castle. Students were brought in to help clear the land of roots and stones. This student element and the artistic / utopian ideals of Gardiner meant that there was also a strong artistic element including operas (one of the volunteer students was the composer Sir Michael Tippett), folk music and dancing. The allotments are still there; unlike many municipal allotments, the plots are clearly marked with fences and boundaries and many are still in use. Also plenty of livestock, including chickens, pigeons and a goat. Not clear how many, if any, of the sheds and pigeonlofts are original, though I spotted at least one re-used Anderson Shelter.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Chagos reversal

Shockingly the Law Lords reversed an earlier judgement that the deported population of the Chagos Islands could return to their homeland. Between 1967 and 1971 they were illegally removed by the British government so that the island of Diego Garcia could be handed over to the US as a major airbase. Most islanders went to Mauritius, but some came to the UK. Whilst some don't want to return others are keen to do so, and have been finding a long campaign to be allowed back. In 200o the then Foreign Secretary accepted the result of a court case saying they could return, but in the fallout of 9/11 US security paranoia led to pressure being placed on the UK to change their policy and contest the Chagossians right of return. The islanders continued to take their fight through the courts and the UK government has consistently opposed them, despite admitting that the way they were initially treated was wrong. The government fought their case on the basis that resettlement would be a security risk to the US airbase and the cost of resettlement would be too costly. Both these arguements are profoundly flawed. The islanders are not demanding to be allowed to reoccupy Diego Garcia (DG), just the outer islands. It is hard to see how they can form any kind of security risk; if the US are unable to contain any potential threats from 150 impoverished Chagossian thinly spread across a isolated islands some over 100 miles from DG, then one wonders how they expect to be able to fight global terrorism. They don't seem too worried about locating their Guantanamo Bay prison home to many hardened terrorists (hem hem) on Cuba, on an island controlled by a Communist administration with a history of 'difficult' relations with the US. The cost of resettlement needn't be an obstacle either. A report has shown that there this would be a feasible process. The former main crop of the island was copra, and there are many abandoned palm plantations scattered across the islands which could be used to produce palm oil, whilst there are good fisheries offshore. Combined with a carefully developed eco-tourism industry (the area is rich in wildlife) it could easily be economically viable for the small population. (see here for the Chagos Conservation Trust's critical but constructive comment on the Howell Report).

The Chagossians will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights but it is difficult to feel optimistic. What is so depressing is that even through the UK government admit that the original removal of the population was manifestly unjust they refuse to do the decent thing and let the islanders return, and instead defer ironically to the security demands of the so-called war on terror. All in all, a shameful and squalid affair back in 1967 and a shameful and squalid affair today.

Hackney Library Ban

A rather depressing little story about the writer Iain Sinclair being banned from launching his new book at Hackney Library

Friday, 17 October 2008

Watkins and Crawford: Photographic perspectives

More ley lines....quite literally. Kitty Hauser's book on O.G.S. Crawford touches on his tetchy interactions with Alfred Watkins, the promoter of the notion of 'ley lines'. As founder and editor of Antiquity, Crawford gave such 'crankeries' pretty short shrift. However, they both shared an interest in the importance of photography in the study of the past. Crawford, as an innovator in aerial archaeology, and Watkins as significant photographer in his own right and a member of the Royal Photographic Society. However, the cartographic nature of the vertical aerial photograph contrasts strongly with the ground level view of Watkins work, much of which he used to illustrate his published work on ley lines. This difference closely reflects the difference approaches to landscape explored by writers such as Chris Tilley (in his Phenomenology of Landscape). Not surprisingly in Tilley's work he criticises the 'objective' and 'totalising' objective and map centred approach which characterises much modern landscape archaeology, instead privileging the subjective, experiential and phenomenological perspective used by many post-structuralist archaeologists and anthropologists. It seems that that despite Watkins' approach being consigned to the dustbin by Crawford, it is in fact his approach that is more in tune with certain streams of modern archaeology. Poor old Crawford also comes in for a bit of a kicking in Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscapes. However, I think Tilley's book certainly over-does his arguements and his heavy use of binary oppositions in contrasting objective/subjective approaches to landscape are a little surprising in someone who is meant to be post-structuralist. I'm going to go back to Matthew Johnson's book soon, in the light of my increased interest in the uses of archaeology in the 1920s-1950s (and the fact that I read it when getting an average of four hours of sleep a night); now I'm more awake and more informed I'm looking forward to giving it another go.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Rotherwas Resurgat

I'm pleased to write that reports of the redating of the Rotherwas ribbon are much exaggerated. I've been contacted by Keith Ray, County Archaeologist for Herefordshire who has let me know that contrary to my earlier post the C14 dates and finds information are all pointing to a Late Neolithic/Early BA date for this highly interesting and unusual site. There will be more information appearing on the Herefordshire SMR website as it becomes available.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Pater Noster

I was at a wedding this Saturday. During the service, the Our Father was said. It was rather disconcerting to notice that looking round the church barely anyone under 40 was joining in with it. If I was charitable I'd say it was because they were shy, but I think it was more likely to be that they simply didn't know it; something I found highly depressing. Knowledge of basic prayers and the broad shape of the liturgy and the liturgical year ought to be a fairly fundamental part of people's general knowledge.

This kind of knowledge is not something that should only belong to practicing Christians. For anyone with an interest in history, literature or popular culture, a basic understanding of the tenets of Christianity is essential. People need not believe in it, but they should at least grasp the basics as part of their basic general knowledge. How can people understand huge chunks of British, European and World history, art and literature without appreciating a key aspect of the social context in which it was created? This applies to everything from Shakespeare, Chaucer and James Joyce through Da Vinci, Millais, Chagall and Stanley Spencer to Father Ted and the video of 'Like a Prayer' by Madonna.

When teaching medieval archaeology I can no longer assume even a basic knowledge of Christianity, and have to provide crib sheets to basic concepts such as the Eucharist and the Passion. This is not a call for increased belief in (I'm a lapsed Catholic- though not so lapsed I don't feel guilty about it), but a knowledge of a key strand of the European cultural inheritance.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Literary ley lines

Lots of strange convergences over the last couple of days. My friend Paul sent me a link to a blog which explores the work of Arnold Toynbee (which I’ll get back to you about Paul!). The same day, I saw Toynbee mentioned in the book I’m currently reading – Where Man Belongs by the English inter-war rural writer and social thinker H.J. Massingham. Massingham, although spending much of his working life as a writer and journalist had some archaeological training and indeed in the same book he mentions O.G.S. Crawford, pioneer aerial photographer and founder of Antiquity. On Wednesday I got the recent and excellently reviewed new biography of Crawford by Kitty Hauser (which I hope to blog about shortly). Massingham was also closely involved in a fascinating nexus of thinkers and rural writers between the 1930s and 1950, which included Adrian Bell (father of Martin Bell), with whom he formed Kinship_in_Husbandry, a kind of proto-think tank opposed to the industrialisation of agriculture and promoting organic farming. It was one of the precursors of the Soil Association. This curious organisation straddled the traditional left/right divide and many of its founders were interested in the notions of social credit, Guild Socialism and Distributism (an economic philosophy formulated by Catholic thinkers such as Belloc and Chesterton). One of the key thinkers in Kinship in Husbandry was Rolf Gardiner, who made an appearance in yesterday’s Guardian, cited as a key figure in developing youth movements in Britain. Literary ley lines in action….

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Viking York

Viking houses discovered on the Hungate site in York. Hungate has so far hit the headlines mainly as an excellent and rare example of the archaeological excavation of 19th century domestic area, with the streets, houses and backyards of the former slums of Hungate revealed. However, its important not to forget that this is York after all, and the fact that it was a major Viking city combined with waterlogging can lead to rather nice discoveries such as this.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Cambro-Canadian Epigraphy

Rather nice find from the Heather and Hillforts project in Denbighshire. Graffiti by a Canadian soldier from WWI.

Scottish wolves

The remains of a wolf trap has been discovered by archaeologists near Inverness.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Shepton Mallet chi-rho

This intriguing little item has hit the press again (e.g. The Guardian). Found in 1990 during excavations on a Roman cemetery and settlement at Shepton Mallet, it caused immediate interest as it was discovered in a grave and it is one of the very very few pieces of personal jewellery from Roman Britain bearing a chi-rho symbol. It became a highly symbolic object and was reproduced in replica form and given to the the Bishop of Bath and Wells (one George Carey).

However, there were suspicions about the authenticity of the object voiced very early. Even before tests on the metal composition in the late 1990s and this year confirmed that it was made from a modern rather than ancient alloy, several archaeologists expressed their scepticism about the item. As a Christian item found in a grave it was highly peculiar; whilst it is not unknown to find grave-goods used in a probable Christian context in the Late Antique world, it was to say the least, unusual; there were certainly no parallels in Roman Britain. It had some similarity with a brooch found in Sussex in the 19th century, but the clumsy way in which the chi-rho had been created by punched holes made for a very unsatisfactory item. does turn out its a fake, but this leads on to two obvious questions: who dunnit and why? There are a number of possible reasons; as the newspaper article notes there was much opposition to the development, and it may have been placed there in an attempt to stop the building (lets not forget that Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 did not come into operation until the November of that year). It does seem a somewhat costly way of preventing the development- there would have been the cost of the silver (admittedly probably not that much), but also the time needed to design and make it. Either the culprit had reasonable jewellery making skills themselves or they had to commission someone else to make it (which would mean more than one person was involved). Whilst the design may have been clumsy copy of the Sussex brooch, it does show that some level of research had gone into the design. The decision to plant a Christian-inspired piece is also intriguing; it shows a good eye for things that would click effectively with public opinion. This wasn't just a quick prank, but a carefully conceived and thought-through project.

I've spoken to a number of people who worked on the site, they all insist it wasn't planted at the time of discovery and that it came from a secure context (ie had been excavated from the ground and not just dropped on the topsoil). So, it must either have been placed in the soil at an earlier point, though presumably at a point after the dig had commenced and the graves identified (it would be interesting to know how much time elapsed between the initial identification of the graves and the discovery of the artefact). All in all a mystery, though in my personal opinion it must have been perpetrated by someone with at least some knowledge of Roman Britain and of archaeological techniques....

Return to blogging

After a very hectic year involving moving house, being repeatedly vomited on by Isobel, spending too much time on the A1 and generally piddling my life away on Facebook I am planning to make a return to the blog. I've been posting odds and sods on Facebook, but I'm going to try and start sticking them on this blog, as there is a little more room to witter. So lets get stuck in....