Towards a psychogeography of Danebury

NOTES: This is a paper version of the paper I gave in Session 10: Archaeologia Hookland: the archaeology of a lost County in England held at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (2019) (#TAG@UCL-IoA. The CFP for the session included the following:

“For those intimate with Hookland, we offer the opportunity to explore and celebrate its archaeology, both in terms of its ancient and more recent past (from the Toad Stone to the pylon’s hum), but also the dark history of surveys, excavations, curses and wyrd discoveries that litter the pages of Archaeologia Hookland. For others, we encourage proposals for papers, talks and creative contributions on the themes of folk horror archaeology, the archaeology of lost and fictional places, and all things landscape punk.”

It is entirely unreferenced, although I’ve put in some links to relevant things. This is a light paper- more Christmas froth than serious analysis, although hopefully people will find some things of interest.

This is a love-letter to a corner of Essex I’ve never visited, a place almost exist, but not quite.

Going on hints gleaned from conversations overhead in pub carparks and church halls I think it’s somewhere in the north of the county.  Head away from the A13, the chemical factories, suburban sprawl and oil refineries of the south of the country – turn north from Canvey Island, up past Chelmsford and Braintree, and you’re getting warm. As far as I can discern, we’re somewhere in the lower valley of the Stour; commutable for commercial excavation in Colchester, not too far from the sea and certainly within the broad distribution of 12th century round tower churches. This is a rural landscape, the home of John Constable, Ronald Blythe and Margery Allingham’s detective Albert Campion. We know the name of a number of settlements in the area, including Danebury, a small market town with a fine parish church, several schools and a library – and most importantly, the home of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, the DMDC; you may have seen, or even own, one of their popular fleeces.

It’s through the eyes of the DMDC and its associated detectorists (not detectors!) that I want to view this historic landscapes through a series of case studies and meditations. I also want to think about the similarities and differences between detectorists and archaeologists and to suggest that in terms of habits and habitats these two, sometimes antagonistic groups, may not be as different as sometimes suggested.  I want particularly to view this landscape through the eyes of two individuals – let’s call them Andy and Lance or to be more precise Andy Stone and Lance Stater – Stater and Stone – surely nominative determinism in action.

As members of the DMDC our two protagonists have been involved in a number of the most important metal detecting discoveries in recent years in North Essex. They have both also clearly worked with archaeological authorities; Andy in particular studied archaeology at university as a mature student and has worked on archaeological sites both locally and in Botswana, although finding employment has not always been easy. In recent years, he has left archaeology behind him to focus on restoring a period property with his partner. Lance, although having little education beyond A levels is clearly an auto-didact with a wide general knowledge. It is Lance who has had the most intriguing interaction with the archaeological authorities.

As I’m sure you know it was Lance who discovered the Henburystone aestel, one of the finest pieces of Anglo-Saxon metalwork from Essex (rivalled perhaps only by the Steeple Bumpstead boss, found a little further up the valley of the Stour). Like the Boss, the gold Henburystone aestel was acquired by the British Museum, in the latter’s case, through the Portable Antiquities Scheme for the princely sum of £50,00. On the way here I did check Room 41 at the BM, but sadly neither piece is still on display.

The closest parallel to the Henburystone object is of course the so-called Alfred Jewel, found in North Petherton in Somerset. Aestels are a poorly understood artefact type, probably intended as pointers for assisting in reading texts, they are clearly high-status objects. In King Alfred’s preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care he noted that “And I will send a copy to every bishop’s see in my kingdom, and in each book there is an aestel of 50 mancusses and I command, in God’s name, that no man take the staff from the book, nor the book from the church.” There are several other aestel’s known from Britain- including the Warminster Jewel, the Minster Lovell Jewell, the Bidford Bobble and the Bowleaze Jewell.

The Henburystone jewel is not the only one found by a detectorist, and the PAS database indicates a number of others, although curiously the finds location of the Henburystone example is not shown. It is not clear whether the Henburystone example was inscribed – the Alfred Jewell carried the inscription “aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”. The only object with a similar inscription I’ve been able to identify is a so-called Sign of Fire seen, but not retained, by one Will Stanton in the harsh winter of 1973. The associated confusing events were noted by Susan Cooper in her study  The Dark is Rising where it is recorded as being made of gold and bearing the inscription “liht mec heht gewyrcan”.

Intriguingly, the finder of the Henburystone aestel reported suspicions of a ‘curse’ following his discovery of the object a mysterious figure appeared in a photograph he took of the item, and subsequently he was unable to make any discoveries with his detector.   

The presence of a mysterious guardian figure attempting to prevent the discovery of, or failing that, to recover, Anglo-Saxon high-status metalwork is not uncommon. Some of you may be aware of the mysterious case of an antiquarian and amateur archaeologist by the name of Paxton, who claimed to have found important royal regalia in the vicinity of Seaburgh in Suffolk. This incident was reported by noted manuscript scholar Montague Rhodes James in the mid-1920s. Sadly, Paxton was discovered brutally murdered by person or persons unknown; luckily Lance was able to assuage the vengeful spirits. The identity of the guardian was never clear,  although if the Henburystone example was one of the aestel’s distributed by Alfred one can’t help recalling his threat “…and I command, in God’s name, that no man take the staff from the book, nor the book from the church

One of the biggest areas of communality between the detecting and archaeological communities is that of ‘practice’. They share, of course, a pursuit of the past, underpinned by a variety of motives, but at their heart one of the most defining characteristics is not just the end result, but the practice itself. For both it is practice that offers some of the defining terms used to describe the practitioners – detectorist, diggers, dirt sharks – for both groups their province is the soil, the interface between the world above ground and the deeper geology. The soil is also an interface between the present and the past; a place that can be accessed through digging, uncovering and revealing what lies below. But also a world that can be accessed vicariously through geophysical techniques (including metal detecting) and remote viewing techniques, satellite, aerial photograph and Google Earth.

But for both groups, it is the physical aspect – almost the mindfulness of digging itself – moving earth, cleaning, revealing – that is important. Emotionally, it’s about process and flow, and is as much about the opportunities to ruminate and chew the cud as the recovery of the objects. It’s also about the opportunity to be outdoors – in the countryside (often but not always); it’s about the sociality of the endeavour, conversations resumed at tea break, private (and public jokes) and gossip (have you heard what happened to old Bob Cromer?).

The Church Farm Roman burial was more of a joint endeavour between Lance and Andy; the end result of a long-drawn out engagement with a rich archaeological landscape over a period of several years. The venture begun with an attempt to identify the burial site of Sexred  (son Saeberht and brother of Saeward) who died in battle in AD626. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it did initiate a sustained engagement with the local landscape of Church Farm, almost but not quite, terminated by an attempt to build a solar array on the land. At a finer chronological scale, the sequence of events that led to the discovery of the Roman burial site and hoard was initiated by the discovery of a hawking whistle, which Andy blew.

The evocation of the past through blowing a whistle is one noted by the previously mentioned MR James, recording the experiences of Parkins, the Professor of Ontography at St Jame’s College on the East Anglian coast. He too found a small whistle whilst engaged in an amateur archaeological endeavour and on blowing it described the tone has having a “a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain”.

Although in his published version of events James described this as taking place at Burnstow, he subsequently disclosed that Burnstow was in fact based on Felixstow. Felixstow lies just over the county border in Suffolk,  at the mouth of the Orwell and the Stour, surely not more than ten miles from Henburystone. Does the Stour valley have a genius loci connected with whistles or pipes?  We know from the work of Kenneth Graham that some claim to have encountered a mysterious piping having followed a river upstream where they saw a mysterious horned figure; there is much to be said elsewhere (another TAG?) about the localisation of the Great God Pan in the verdant river valleys of southern England.

For Andy, the blowing of the whistle invokes or maybe provokes something different, maybe a vision, a girl blowing a whistle , the same girl watching a funeral, burying the ashes of someone once alive – and other things too, 18th century lovers, tractors from just after the War. But watching overall, always the magpies:  “She wants to be flowers but you make her magpies”.

This vision of a sedimented past, bound together by skeins of narrative and affect is a powerful one;  this is the archaeological imagination. In the words of Michael Shanks “The archaeological imagination is rooted in a sensibility, a pervasive set of attitudes towards traces and remains, towards memory, time, the very fabric of history. The focus of this sensibility and constitutive imagination is the persistence of the past, the articulation of remains of the past with the present, re-collecting, as a memory practice, bringing what is left of the past before the present, making it live again.”

Lance and Andy may not use the language of Michael Shanks, but for them their pursuit is about more than simple acquisition. In the same way that archaeologists sometimes have a dismissive attitude towards detectorists and their motivation – Lance has a similarly reductive perspective on archaeology:

You see, archaeologists gather the facts, piece together the jigsaw, work out how we lived and find the buildings we lived in. But what we do is different. We pick up the scattered memories. We fill in the personality. We are story tellers and miners of stories. Detectorists are time travellers.

He reduces our profession to acquirers and mappers of data, whilst seeing detectorists as driven by the urge to create narratives. As archaeologists we may instinctively disagree with Lance’s take, whilst simultaneously admitting to ourselves that we’re not always as good about telling stories as we’d like to think we are. We see here the importance of how we approach the past; all parties seeing themselves as custodians of narrative.

But back to the burial. The coin found by Lance, before being stolen by the magpie, seems to have been a gold coin of Septimius Severus. These are rare finds in a British context- indeed, no gold aureus of Septimius Severus have been reported on the PAS database. The indications that it was just one coin in a larger hoard point to the exceptional importance of this isolated cremation burial. The Stour Valley was certainly an area with a high level of Roman activity as might be expected in an area in the hinterland of a major Roman town,  Colchester. There is a station in Iter IX of the Antonine Itinerary named Ad Ansam, which is listed 15 miles from Combretovium (Baylham House, Suffolk) and 6 miles from Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex). This site remains unlocated, but one wonders whether the Henburystone discovery may point to the location of either the vicus itself or an unrecognised villa. I’d certainly recommend an assessment of the round tower in the church for possible re-use of Roman CBM, such as is found at other Stour Valley churches such as Little Cornard, Wormingford, Langham, Mount Bures, Alphamstone, and Kedington.

The presence of this burial, the rumours of the proximity of Sexred’s burial sites and the discovery of an aestel, with its possible episcopal links, point to the Church Farm area as being a site of some significance over the longue durée. It is sites like this that attract archaeologists and metal detectorists, drawn like bees to the honey of complex landscape palimpsests, impressive chronologies and exciting artefact assemblages. Inexorably, the gravitational pull of antiquity pulls digger and detectorist inwards, perhaps with the ultimate aspiration that this gravitational pull will become so strong, that as with a black hole, space and time are no longer interrelated realities, but merge indistinguishably and cease to have any independent meaning. Yet, despite these centripetal forces bringing archaeologist and detectorist to the same central foci, there is another centrifugal force that compels them to spend time in the edges, both literal edges: field edges, Portacabins and compounds;  but also social edges: the pub, the parish hall and the gazebo.

It’s in their spatial arrangement that detectorists and archaeologist share parallel lives. The materiality and modality of their ecological niches are scarily similar – the gazebo, the parish hall and the pub – all habitats within which the DMDC and professional archaeologist are at home, providing them with shelter and offering arenas for sociality and just perhaps a protective carapace that can help shape and structure interactions with the wider general public. There are few archaeologists who have not spend some time sat behind folding tables in a parish hall overseeing handling collections or holding down a reluctant gazebo at a site open day when it wants to convert itself into a kite in the presence of a slightest breeze.

Both detectorists and diggers are familiar with the flight to the pub at the end of a long day on site – as age creeps up and family life intrudes, the pub becomes an important liminal space that buffers the demands of the profession and family life. Although with family responsibilities, the aspiration to reach the pub is often trumped by the pragmatics of caring duties.

Both groups are adept at creating temporary spaces of sociability – under canvas, under tarpaulins, under trees – where the dynamics of social interaction are maintained and continued. We see this at the trench edge, the field edge, the rally, the excavation and even the perhaps the conference. These spaces are crucial in maintaining conviviality, in the sense of how the term was defined by social theorist, Ivan Ilich. Conviviality in this sense might be defined as the way in which a shared common interest, perhaps trivial in itself, becomes a means by which a group might create a shared sense of collective identity. But this conviviality is not just about interactions and communities of people, but also about the assemblage of past and present that brings people, landscapes and objects into a creative and socialised relationship. The activities of archaeologists and the DMDC are as much about constituting a collective imagining of a past that persists into the present, as about the instrumental goal of artefact or data recovery – and to do this they share more in common than they think. Michael Givens who is one of the relatively few archaeologists who have explored this notion at its application to the past has emphasised that thinking about conviviality celebrates the shifting, emerging, fading, struggling connections and interdependencies that in their unfathomable complexity constitute life, and it is precisely those relationships and interdependencies that echo outwards into social and material networks, backwards into the past, and projecting into the future.

Perhaps the most important message of the work of the DMDC and its members though is a wider moral one- and one that regrettably is more pertinent and timely than I realised when I first thought about this paper. This message is that human connections with the past, and the practices and structures within which he aim to reconstitute them, whether through subjective narrative and imaginative engagement or through a more cool, distanced collecting and collating of data are invariably made better by humility, generosity and by cultivating human and humane relationships with each other and the past. I leave you with this clip from Detectorists to reflect upon this message. Be more kind.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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