Sunday, 18 November 2012

where it all begins

The other week I caught a documentary on Radio 4 by Stuart Lee about the mid-1970s children’s television programme Children of the Stones. Set around a stone circle that was clearly based on Avebury, it explored For a children’s drama it was surprisingly sophisticated and surprisingly scary. It was a programme I must have seen some of when I was young, as I recognised some of it when I found it on Youtube, although it was pretty deeply buried in my memory. I remember more clearly a similar series called The Moon Stallion set around the White Horse at Uffington. Again, the plot revolved around magic and dark powers. One scene that particularly stayed with me was set in the chamber of Wayland’s Smithy, where the children see a vision of a terrible things, including a mushroom cloud. Both were set in a part of the world I have a strong attachment to and involved prehistoric archaeological sites. This has got me thinking about those early formative experiences which archaeologists (and normal people) go through that grabs them and makes them interested in a particular period. Given my memory of these programmes I’m surprised I was never grabbed by prehistory (despite a brief flirtation with the Iron Age). For me, it was always Roman Britain and the early middle ages. For the Romans it was a visit to the exhibition about Pompeii at the British Museum in *the mid-1970s which kicked it off, combined with regular childhood trips to the Roman shore fort at Richborough in Kent. Subsequent nagging persuaded my parents to take me to other Roman sites, such as Fishbourne and up to Hadrian’s Wall. However, although this inculcated an enthusiasm for Roman Britain, my interest in the Roman world stopped more or less at Calais (where to be honest, it has remained). I never got grabbed by the wider Roman world. I loved Peter Connolly’s wonderfully illustrated books on the Roman Army and at the age of 7 I was convinced that the funniest thing ever on god’s green earth was Carry On Cleo, but I still cannot get excited about Classical Rome (there is something so dreadfully Victorian about it). I also remember distinctly the moment I got excited about the Anglo-Saxons – I was in infant’s school and we watched a school’s programme which included a series of dramatized episodes about Alfred and Guthrum – for some reason I was absolutely enthralled. In the months afterwards I recall drawing endless pictures of Vikings in breaktime, paying obsessive attention to drawing all the individual links in the chainmail. My school also had lots of copies by a series of novels about Vikings by Henry Treece, which I repeatedly read – there were also doubtless trips to the BM to look at the Viking stuff (I have very clear memories of the tremendous Vendel carved figure head that used to stand on the main stairs (maybe still does). I think the obsession was stoked by the inevitable adolescent flirtation with fantasy role playing and fantasy literature, although even at the time I found most of the fantasy literature pretty dire and was never swept away by LOTR. Instead, it was the writing of Susan Cooper and Alan Garner which was my particular favourite, undoubtedly because both Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence and Garner’s novels were set in this world, but one where other dimensions rubbed up close. Both also drew heavily on Arthurian and Celtic themes; it was certainly through reading the Owl Service that I came upon the Mabinogion. About the same time there was also a BBC series The Legends of King Arthur. It was set in a fairly Dark Age-esque milieu – the knights all wore helmets clearly based on the Sutton Hoo helmet. It’s odd now, looking back as someone who spends their time thinking about the early medieval world, how far back the original seeds of this interest were planted. My daughter is now five and excited by Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, wants a Playmobil knights castle (or pirate set), has a toy bow and arrow, but wants to be a ballet dancer. Odds on she’ll still be obsessed with at least one of these things when she reached forty, which I find rather pleasing.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Although I come from the south of England, I’ve been living in the North for 13 years now; before that I’d spent three years in York as a student. I’ve married a York girl and my daughter has flat vowels. Despite all these ties binding me to the north I still think of a certain part of west Berkshire and south Oxfordshire as home. Maybe ‘home’ is the wrong word in this context. Of course, my true home is where my family is; that’s the place where I can’t wait to get back to after a long day at work or time working away. However, in recent years I’ve begun to increasingly miss the area where I grew up. Between the age of ten and my late twenties, apart from my temporary excursion to York for university, I spent most of my time in a triangle of land that runs from where the Kennet meets the Thames at Reading, west along the Kennet as far as Newbury and then from Newbury up the A34 to Oxford. There was a wider hinterland that headed west into Wiltshire, where I visited school friends and made early precocious trips with my parents to explore the archaeology. I still return regularly (but not regularly enough) to visit my parents, on the edge of the Vale of the White Horse and to see friends in Oxford. This area, particularly places along the Ridgeway, from Avebury along the scarp slopes of the Downs past Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse, have evolved over the last couple of decades to form landmarks in my own personal mythology. I think there are many reasons for this increased nostalgia. Some are connected to the inevitable process of getting older. In recent years, I’ve had children and after years of temporary contracts got a permanent job. After a long time when I didn’t feel personally rooted to the North, I’ve realised that I’m here for the long-haul. There are ties here that go beyond my own personal preferences; I now have responsibilities and obligations. In the past, I always had the sense that work or life might take me back south, but now it’s clear I’m not going anywhere soon. On a wider scale, my extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived in an area to the south and east of Oxford, particularly along the south coast. However, as the generations pass, we, as a family, have slowly shifted our centre of gravity; the south coast is no longer part of my world and has slipped off the edge of my map. The Welsh have a word hiraeth, which means an elegiac nostalgia for one’s homeland, which seems to be what I’m feeling at the moment. I’m not sure whether this is simply a process of regret for not visiting an area I love more often, or a process of mourning for a place I’ll probably never live in again.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Archaeology, jobs and roads

Honestly, you write a blog post and then before you know it, six months have passed and it’s time to write another! Couple of things caught my eye recently- most recently was the government announcing plans to revive a series of road building schemes that had been shelved, seemingly funded somehow by a combination of local authorities and commercial capital (because that kind of thing has worked SO well in the past…). This seems to be part of some kind of on-going CONDEM campaign to cause chaos in local authority planning departments. Combined with HS2 and the fantastic policy of kick-starting the economy by allowing people to build slightly bigger conservatories, this is yet another policy seemingly intended to cause immense levels of contention at local planning level. It is tempting to suggest, only partially tongue in cheek, that the idea is to cause massive problems in local government planning so that they then have a strong argument for removing planning from local authority control and centralising it in Whitehall. I did rather depressingly hear a Tory MP on Any Questions the other week talking about placing underperforming planning departments into ‘special measures’; exactly the same term used to for ‘underperforming’ schools which are now forced out of local education authority control and into ‘academy’ status, with a line of accountability that runs straight from school to ‘sponsor’ to Whitehall- conveniently cutting out all those tiresome local authority people and democratically elected councillors. As I understand it, this policy of hacking away at local authorities and replacing them with Whitehall is called ‘localism’. Anyhow, as an archaeologist, my hackles tend to rise and this kind of thing. On the whole, I tend to prefer not to see archaeological sites, historic landscapes, listed buildings etc destroyed – sorry, I’m just a bit funny like that. Indeed, another recent article in the paper that caught my eye was one that highlighted that 20 years have elapsed since the Twyford Down protests. This was the first of a series of environmental protests that kicked off in the early 1990s. The one that I saw up-close was the anti-Newbury bypass campaign- which saw the emergence of Archaeologist and Development as a pressure group. I well remember attending a rally at the site organised by the group. The trouble is, and very few archaeologists I think admit this, is that whatever the pros and cons of road construction (both in environmental terms and as an act of Keynesian economic stimulus), archaeology is just another subcontractor of the construction industry. Due to the way in which archaeologist sits within the planning system, we have a commercial archaeological sector that exists to fulfil the developers legal obligations to meet concerns about the threat to archaeological deposits. Commercial fieldwork units competitively tender for work and derive most, or more usually all, of their income from such contracts. We’ve seen this very clearly in recent years; the recession led to a collapse in construction and a consequent collapse in commercial archaeology, with extensive lay-offs and many businesses going under. If (and it is a big if) all these new road schemes go ahead, it will mean lots of jobs for those working in the commercial sector. Bad for archaeology but good for archaeologists – this is a paradox I’m not sure how to resolve. I am concerned for the environment and don’t want to see the damage wrought by the road building schemes, but I have many friends and colleagues who work in the commercial sector and for whom these kind of projects mean jobs. Which should take priority?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

World War II

On recent episode of Radio 4’s obituary programme Last Word there were two individuals with connections with World War II.
‘Buck’ Compton was probably best known as one of the members of Easy Company, 101st Airborne whose war time story was turned into the successful television series Band of Brothers which followed their journey through the early days of the D-Day landings in Normandy through France and the Low Countries to the final days of the war to the east of the Rhine. The other person was the artist Leonard Rosamon, well-known for his work as an artist during World War II; his picture House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane is one of the iconic representations of the London Blitz.

It rather brought home to me, if I needed reminding, the extent to which the World War II generation is rapidly slipping away. In many ways it has been World War I that has been higher in popular consciousness recently. The final generation of veterans of the Great War have passed away over the last year, and the success of the book, play and now film War Horse and the book and tv series Birdsong have highlighted the horrors of the western front. This has consolidated the understanding derived from a thousand history lessons and GCSE set texts of the war poets.
Nonetheless,, I feel far more emotional on a personal level about the way in which World War II is passing into history as those who experienced directly are no longer with us. This is for a number of reasons. Partly this is a generational thing- personally, the passing of World War II generation is the passing of my grandparent’s generation, so it marks a profoundly personal transition as my own family’s shape and dynamic changes. Experiences and stories about the war are tied up with my own family relationships- I heard stories from relatives about their experiences on troop ships out to North Africa, loosing houses in the Blitz, watching the bombs fall on factories were partners were working, liaising with US troops in Somerset, and destroying bunkers on Heligoland. I grew up with pictures of grandfathers and great-uncles in uniform. Through this vicarious experience of the war (not to mention classic black and white war films), for me in World War II is still the war, my default image of what a war consists of. Although I was only 10 when the Falklands Conflict broke out, I remember being convinced that Britain would be bombed, because that was what war involved. I doubt if today, British ten year olds worry that the UKs latest overseas escapade will lead to mass aerial bombing of the UK mainland!

I’m also very aware of how visible the relics of World War II still are in the landscape. I grew up in in Berkshire, close to the Kennet Valley, one of the major ‘stop lines’ intended to halt the expected German invasion. The countryside was (indeed still is) littered with concrete pillboxes, it is only now I live in Yorkshire I realise how unusual this is. Now I live in Yorkshire I realise that these parts of my childhood landscape aren’t found across the country. However, up here, there are other reminders of the war. My daughter’s school was badly damaged by bombing and the local hall wherthe she went to playgroup had a memorial to the civillians killed when nearby houses were destroyed during the same raid. In town, in the Betty’s teashop there is a mirror onto which Canadian bomber pilots had scratched their names. The fields near where my wife grew up were used as a decoy site to attract the Luftwaffe from the city centre. Even doing my fieldwork in Northumberland, it is easy to stumble across reminders of the war. The broad flat sands of the North Northumberland coast were believed to have provided ideal landing beaches for German landings – I realised when I was driving around there last week that I was back in a landscape of pillboxes and I parked up by the line of concrete tank blocks that lines the coast near Holy Island.