Archives for category: Historical archaeology

I moved into a new (old) house in Crossgates (or Cross Gates – no-one can decide which is correct) three weeks ago. As an archaeologist, I regard a house as an archaeological project, and I have spent many a midnight hour researching where I’ve lived and even more time sifting the earth in various gardens. What I found in my last home can be seen on my Fires of Prometheus web pages.

But now I have a new archaeological site to explore. The house was built in 1900, so just scrapes into being Victorian, and was constructed on what had been open fields. The other day I began work in the garden, digging an area that had been covered with pebbles, gravel and a sheet of polythene and which is to become my vegetable patch.

At first all I found were earthworms, grumpy at being disturbed,  couch grass roots and a golf tee. Not very exciting. But (typically) when I had almost finished for the day, I found a bisque doll’s arm.

doll_arm_1aJust under four centimetres long, the arm would have been sewn, along with the head and other limbs, to a fabric, stuffed body. These ceramic artefacts are forming an important element of my PhD research, so I was quietly thrilled to have discovered one in my own back yard!

I’m going to blog about my experiences as I explore my home archaeologically. I’m going to call my blog, rather unimaginatively, Place, and I’ll put a link here as soon as it’s live.

I’ve escaped my study and the corridors of academe for a few days, and have joined in an archaeological excavation beside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Ty Coch, near Cwmbran. It has been great to wield a mattock and have a trowel in my hand again after too long an absence from the trenches.

The site is beside Shop Lock, the top of a flight of three locks, and was discovered when a team of volunteers carrying out restoration discovered masonry just below the surface they were clearing. They called in an archaeologist and a local history group, and I heard about it also and couldn’t resist the temptation to abandon my studies and head to Wales.

The short project appears to have uncovered a saw pit and associated structures:


The pit and the building around it appears to have been contemporary with the construction of the canal (1790s) but to have been subsequently altered and repaired. At some point the building was demolished and the pit filled with rubble that contained material as varied as nineteenth century ceramics and a 1981 crisp packet. The location of a saw pit close to a series of locks is understandable given the need to fabricate, repair and replace lock gates.

For me it’s been great fun. For one thing it’s been good not to be the oldest person on site! Good also to train a few volunteers in the finer skills of excavation and recording. It’s also a rare project these days that is almost completely volunteer-run. I’ve enjoyed finding a scatter of interesting nineteenth century material, and meeting some keen amateurs willing to brave the wind and rain of this miserable early summer!


It’s not often I read a non-fiction book straight through, but I’ve just demolished my copy of Bill Brown’s 2003 A Sense of Things, The Object Matter of American Literature, which now sprouts a forest of page-markers. The book has given me lots to think about, lit some light-bulbs, sent me scurrying after other references, got me to download a couple of nineteenth century pdfs (ah the joys of technology…to be able to sit in one’s sick-bed, accessing 150-year-old volumes in US university libraries).

I was already exploring Mark Twain’s writings about bric-a-brac, but Brown has alerted me to others, including Henry James, who has provided me with lots of interest. Brown points out that although some of James’ characters share a hatred of bric-a-brac, they also demonstrate that even “hideous objects could be loved.” As Brown writes: “…we use physical objects to arouse and organize our affection.” Yes!

Now I’m several chapters into Things, which Brown edited in 2004. This of course is more of a dipping-into read, but still valuable.

I sat at the CHAT conference (see last post) listening and letting little bubbles of thought pop in my over-stimulated brain.

Here are a few notes:

Reverse engineering in archaeology (Gabriel Moshenska). I realised that no-one will ever “do” archaeology in the way we did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The organisations have changed, there has been a degree of innovation (though not as much as you might expect), some techniques have evolved, new technologies have been added, and health and safety is far more developed. I think we probably had more adventures in the early days (“the heroic age of archaeology”) though…

You can’t take the archaeologist out of the process.

The material world is changing minute by minute – how can archaeology deal with this?

We are surveying the past in the present.

Critical code studies (Ross Wilson) and the archaeology of the Internet.

The archaeology of illicit and illegal activities (Gabriella Soto). When a discarded backpack might be evidence of a life/death struggle.

Overburden (Craig Cessford). The importance of the surface.

When people are highly suspicious of archaeologists (Suzanne Lilley) and when you might be damned for publishing!

Agressive v “nice” roundabouts (Matt Edgeworth). Non-places, taken-for-granted things. The fascination of the familiar. Breaking rules (archaeological and societal).

Exploring hinterlands by just “wandering about (Paul Graves-Brown). The importance of talking to people.

Prague summer villas look as if constructed from children’s building blocks (Vaclav Matousek).

The archaeology of “hopelessness” (Quintin Lewis) and the necessity of looking up (above the shopfronts) as well as down. The archaeological importance of friendly taxi-drivers!

Archaeology as reportage (Rob Maxwell).

The Archaeology of Occupy. Marjolin Kok and Elles Besselsen mull over the materiality of anti-materialists.

Appropriating the mass-produced object (that is an important concept for me!) Making matter speak.

Digitally excavating photographs and postcards. Using postcards as evidence of past values (Sian Jones)

The archaeology and transformation (and theft) of concrete slabs (Steven Leech and Ruth Colton).

The end time and archaeology (Donnelly Hayde). Perhaps we won’t last long enough to finish our PhDs?

Getting modern objects recognised as important by the powers-that-be. Why does the past end in 1700? (Hilary Orange).

Turning one’s nose up at privies, and a potty on the mantelpiece (Paul Mullins).

A discovery – the Czech “Tramping Movement”. Alberta, Manitoba, cowboys and potlach in the Czech forest. (Tomas Hirt and James Symonds).

The sound of rust (Ron Wright).

The high: This morning I have the slightly swollen lips of a prize-fighter. However I’ve not been involved in any acts of violence – the very opposite. Yesterday, for five hours, I played first oboe in Manchester’s Cameo Orchestra as we rehearsed (for fun) Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Strangely, this was the first time I’d played this familar work, and it was great fun, despite a couple of minor lapses in concentration. I’ve always adhered to the musical principal that if you are going to play a wrong note, miss an entry or come in at the wrong place, one should do it with aplomb. Perhaps that is because playing the oboe, not a retiring instrument, means that everyone is going to hear whatever you do anyway. But the oboe can be hard work, hence my morning pout.

The low: Because I’m now pretty-well based in Manchester I’ve had to give up my much-loved allotment at Whitemoor, in Nottingham. Last week I handed it over to Louise, who is taking it over. Although I’d only worked the allotment for some six years (one of my fellow gardeners has been cultivating his plot for 50 years), it nevertheless involved a lot of hard work, successes and failures, as well as, of course, providing plenty of wonderful organic produce, despite competition from ravenous hordes of slugs, snails, whitefly, aphids, wireworms and pigeons. The plot sprouted a hearty jungle of weeds as soon as my back was turned, and bricks and lumps of concrete turned up like dragons’ teeth, but it was great fun, great exercise, and being on the allotment, whatever the time of year or whatever the weather, was a restorative experience. I shall miss it a lot, and already look forward to growing food again in the future.

The jolt: I learned this morning that a paper has just been published by a couple of authors well known to me that appears at first glance to preempt a significant chunk of my proposed PhD research. Hey, I’m just three weeks into my three years and someone is already chewing at my topic! I raced to download the paper, and gobbled up its 16 pages. It’s an interesting,  well-researched and well-written paper, and yes, I found some overlaps, commonalities and challenges (it even cites my MA dissertation). But I also found a number of references and sources I hadn’t yet discovered (thank you), support for several of my ideas and approaches (phew!) and some very useful pointers.

Perhaps I am experiencing for the first time something that may be familiar to all researchers – the discovery that others are exploring the same areas of scholarship, and the attendant anxiety that they might reach the buried treasure first! The paper is only about 2,000 words long, and when I calmed down I recognised that it is essentially a brief and useful introduction to just some of the ideas that I shall be covering and on which I’ll be expanding somewhere in my 80,000 words. I’ll be able to cite it, make use of the information and hopefully collaborate with its authors on future research and publications. Takes deep breaths…

Still, it woke me up, this Monday morning!

I’ve come across this passage referred to in two books in the last week. In her work Homes of the London Poor, Octavia Hill, writing of trying to persuade “the poor” to move from what she regarded as “miserable” accommodation to slightly less horrible surroundings wrote:

“Our plan of removing the inhabitants of the miserable underground kitchens to rooms in the upper parts of the houses, did not, strange as it may seem, meet with any approbation at first. They had been so long in the semi-darkness that they felt it an effort to move. One woman, in particular, I remember, pleaded hard with me to let her stop, saying, “My bits of things won’t look anything if you bring them to the light.” By degrees, however, we effected the change.”

For me, the woman’s concern that her “bits of things” should be seen to best advantage is very revealing, and I believe supports my contention that even the poorest (these were people living in dark and dingy cellars and basements) wished to display some objects (a collection?) that reflected well on their owners.

Hill, Octavia. Homes of the London Poor. Fortnightly Review, November 1866.

The other day we research newbies heard the plaint of an almost-finished PhD candidate who had been instructed by his external examiner to reformat his entire thesis using Times New Roman font “because that’s what a thesis should be set in.”

Although I can see the point in discouraging difficult-to-read fonts from hefty documents, and I am as snooty about Comic Sans as the next person, the incident made me think about the relevance of a chunk of reconstituted cellulose splattered with carbon in this digital age.  Today, need a thesis even be necessarily communicated via such an old-fashioned medium such as ink on paper?

When I submitted my MA dissertation I had to courier three bound copies from Canada to England, which involved several days and not insignificant cost, while at the same time I emailed, in a few seconds, the same pdf file from which the copies had been printed to the department just in case the hard copy got lost. The cost of this latter process was, of course, negligible. But the same information could have been presented in other easily accessible and shareable ways, for example as a html file, easily searchable, with dynamic links to images and other resources that could have included video, and audio. I could have included 360 degree images of the objects about which I was writing.

But even this might not be ambitious enough. What about something that records the process of research from day one, and includes all the discussions, head scratchings, failures, successes, frustrations, triumphs, discoveries, mysteries, losses and findings that a research project involves? I get some of my best ideas/brainwaves,lightbulb moments whilst sitting in a noisy pub or during a hike. Those eureka moments are rarely recorded in published research. OK, an e-thesis might be difficult to “mark” in the traditional manner of course, but why should assessing something that has absorbed three years or so of someone’s life and which we hope will contribute to and enhance human knowledge, be easy?

In addition, something as potentially dynamic as a digital thesis might also be accessed, read and used by many more people than the handful (if you are lucky) who will glance at the bound copy mouldering in the university archive.

Hmmm, Plantagenet Cherokee sounds like a fun typeface!

I’m sitting in a otherwise empty room in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Righton Building, at about the middle of my first week at MIRIAD, an induction week filled with a general feeling of being a little lost, a week spent meeting about 100 new people and immediately forgetting their names, being handed sheaves of  forms, being frightened by an avalanche of acronyms and initialisms, shuffling to stuffy lecture rooms amongst crowds of equally confused students along corridors that range from brand-new to decrepit, and being reminded by a series of cheerful staff on the one hand what a daunting, if not terrifying challenge we are facing but also what a wonderful experience we are just beginning! Gulp!

I’ve happily explained my research topic to my new peers at least a dozen times, finding, interestingly, that my bumbling description of what I’m going to be doing is different every time! I’ve listened in turn to my 20 or so fellow newbies, who all are starting along fascinating paths to their various MAs or PhDs. Meeting them has been a great experience. We appear to be a friendly, relaxed bunch, refreshingly free of arty-farty bollocks and weirdness, and there seems to be plenty of chemistry amongst our personalities and synergy amongst our research areas. Phew! At least three other PhD researchers will be working on nineteenth century material. I hope some of the results of these parallels will not only appear here but will influence my final thesis. Exciting stuff!

I’ve met, briefly, my Director of Studies, with whom I am going to enjoy interacting (if that’s a suitable term for the supervisory relationship). One of my supervisors is on maternity leave, but, two days in, I’m confident that I’ll not only survive but will enjoy my own process of giving birth to my research project!

And today I learned that the journal World Archaeology is calling for papers for an issue focusing on miniaturisation, which gives me a fantastic and hopefully achievable goal for this time next year…

Oh, and it has rained almost continuously since I arrived in Manchester!

In Small Things Forgotten was the title of what is perhaps the most widely-known book on the historical archaeology of North America. Archaeologist James Deetz wrote it in 1977 as an enthusiastic, inspiring and energising introduction to his area of study, and it has been included in almost every historical archaeology reading list, and read and cited very many times ever since. In my reading of his work, Deetz used the word “small” to indicate that the objects and features he explored were unspectacular, ordinary, mundane, cheap, familiar, often discarded, perhaps easily overlooked and indeed forgotten. He was asking us as archaeologists to recognise and assign big meanings to things previously regarded as insignificant. Ironically, Deetz does not really look at small (as in diminutive) things, things that I call miniatures, objects that are small-scale versions of full-sized originals, real or imagined. It is these small things that I am researching. Mass-produced miniatures share all the characteristics of Deetz”s small things, but I suggest that they have been even more overlooked by archaeologists, especially in the Old World.

From September 2012 I shall be carrying out research for a PhD at Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD).  My broad and unedited scope (it will without doubt change and narrow once I begin to interact with staff and fellow-students) – Objects of Delight: Mass-produced miniatures from the nineteenth century to the present. This blog will parallel that activity, reflecting both my research and life as a (mature) student.