Archives for category: Nineteenth Century

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).

Our post-lecture discussion of the everyday led, circuitously, to everyday images. At one point I mentioned my sense of loss resulting from the disappearance, in the midst of one of life’s traumatic upheavals, of most of my collection of 35mm colour transparencies, which dated back as far as my teens and included my undergraduate days, much of my archaeology career, a handful of exes, some travels and much besides.

I have clear memories of many of the images on those transparencies, memories which of course include not only the “frozen moment” captured on Agfacolor or Ektachrome but different snatches of time either side of that fossilised 60th of a second at f8. Are those memories different to the image? Better than the image? An extension of the image? Or are they somehow lessened by the lack of something tangible to which to anchor them?

Bob told of a photograph, an only print now destroyed, of his father holding him when he was a child. He feels that his memory of the image is so strong and clear that he doesn’t need the snapshot to recall it and the importance of what it depicted.

Yet I, despite being able to describe to you many of those lost-for-ever photographs, nevertheless continue to mourn their destruction. Perhaps as an over-reaction I now keep my last 20 years-worth of photographic negatives in a safety deposit box, and back up my digital images not just once but thrice, with one hard drive locked away in the same deposit box!

The importance of the physicality of photographs is surely demonstrated by people’s defacement of them, by the almost violent excision of a no-longer-loved one, the scratching or obliteration of a despised face, the almost-ritual tearing up of ¬†photographs of an ended relationship, the turning of a photograph to the wall…

This ramble is all very shallow, and I know many have thought hard and written copiously about what photography is and does. So I have to look much more deeply into the relationship between memory and memento, and remembered and tangible images, for the three-dimensional objects I am researching were often called “images” in the nineteenth century. They were also referred to as “figures,” echoing perhaps the use of the word to describe two-dimensional book illustrations as well as three dimensional human bodies.

My days in Manchester are getting more crowded with research-related activities, the best of which involve my fellow-students. It is fascinating how just listening to others explain their projects, their approaches, their writing goals, their interests, their problems and their achievements creates a chain reaction of thoughts and ideas in my own grey matter. Although some enjoy the freedom and peace of studying alone, I find I need this stream of seemingly-random stimuli.

In Writing Group the other day we briefly talked of different preferences for environments in which to write. I get more ideas sitting for a couple of hours in a quiet pub with a notebook on my knee and pint or two of beer nearby than I would in a whole day trapped in my study. Of course, turning those notebook scribbles, bullet lists and mind maps into something more concrete requires me to be glued to my desk. But this way I avoid empty page syndrome, and it seems that for some people, like me, the brain has to be almost tricked into creativity.

Today, three of us who have in common a research interest in the nineteenth century met to launch a study group. It was a small but significant step, and for me could be a way to avoid clutching my work protectively to myself as if it were a swaddled baby. Good for me…

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.