White Horse

And so full of good intentions and mince pies (and shamed by the Blogging Archaeology blog carnival) I am determined to get resume blogging more regularly this year, having achieved a rather pathetic total of three posts on Outlandish Knight in 2013.

I thought I’d start off by supplementing a post I’ve just made on my other personal blog (Vale of the White Horse), which focuses in on archaeology and history of the Vale of the White Horse in occupied North Berkshire. It was a fairly brief post about the Neolithic long-barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. It reminded me of the 1970s children’s tv series Moon Stallion, which was one of those strange slightly psychedelic/neo-Romantic series that would never get made today – a kind of Wicker Man-lite for the Chegwin generation. It involved the daughter of an archaeologist (naturally) and was set around Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse, among the protagonists was a Green King and a horse man with a sideline in warlockery. It was all very silly, but had me utterly entranced. It was one of the first things that got me fascinated by the Downs. Although I’ve had a passion for the chalk downland of Wessex ever since, it was this small area of the Berkshire Downs that really got under my skin. As I sit here I have a small watercolour of the White Horse on the wall, and every time I get back south we try and head up to the Horse. Indeed, this Christmas saw us up on Dragon Hill, with the children forging ahead and leading the charge up the Horse. It gives me immense personal satisfaction that they love it too. My passion for the area has received further spurs- after I graduated one of my first jobs in commercial archaeology was digging with Oxford Archaeology up at Tower Hill – big rain-washed landscapes, grooved ware pits, solid chalk just inches below top soil making excavation a piece of piss and a tiny site hut in the middle of a large field. One of my first published pieces of archaeology was a fairly half-arse critique of the Maddle Farm Survey. It’s a landscape I’ve been going to and from physically and mentally for nearly two decades now. Although I live at a distance, I still want my ashes scattered from the White Horse.

Blogging Archaeology #2

Time for episode two of the Blogging Archaeology blog carnival. You can see the synthesis of the first set of responses on Doug’s Archaeology blog.

The next set of questions are:

The Good– what has been good about blogging. I know some people in their ‘why blogging’ posts mentioned creating networks and getting asked to talk on a subject. But take this to the next level, anything and everything positive about blogging, share your stories. You could even share what you hope blogging will do for you in the future.

The Bad– lots of people mention it feels like talking to brick wall sometimes when you blog. No one comments on posts or very few people do. What are your disappointments with blogging? What are your frustrations? What do you hate about blogging? What would you like to see changed about blogging?

The Ugly– I know Chris at RAS will mention the time he got fired for blogging about archaeology. It is your worst experiences with blogging- trolls, getting fired, etc.

So let’s do them in order (and trying to avoid too much repetition from my last entry…

The Good This varies depending which blog I’m talking about. My Roman Binchester blog has been wonderful – lots of hits and useful feedback. It’s been good being able to share information about progress on site more or less as it happens. This has been particularly useful when we’ve had exciting finds or major developments. It’s also become a useful document of how our interpretation and understanding of the site has changes over time. If you sat and worked through the blog posts you would see our thoughts and ideas changing from year to year, from week to week and even from day to day. On a more functional level, it acts as a kind of ad hoc site notebook highlighting major (and minor) discoveries and developments and a useful aide memoire for me. It has also proved particularly useful when we’ve had press involvement (we’ve done quite a bit of press and media over the years). Often the message and information provided by the press (even though usually with the best of intentions) tends to be slightly different from what we’ve actually said. There is also an understandable tendency by the media to simplify the complexity of the site (and I don’t mean outrageous dumbing down- although that has happened- simply the inevitable ironing out of the uncertainties and complexities when a radio report has to be edited down to 90 seconds). Also, often a period of time has passed since the initial interview and the final broadcast meaning our understandings have changed. The blog is useful for bringing those who find their way to it a more detailed, nuanced and up to date overview of the site. It is certainly noticeable from the webstats that the appearance of the site in the media leads to a distinct upsurge in readers (even when the blog itself hasn’t been publicised).

The other blogs, although having a far lower readership have also got their positives. I’ve found the discipline of sitting down and writing a blog entry has often helped marshal my thoughts into some kind of order- it’s a useful exercise in developing and expressing an opinion. I’ve also developed a small number of useful contacts (either directly through the blog or through sharing it on FB).

The bad Nothing shocking here- no horror stories. Downsides are simply, not having enough time (or the discipline to make time) to blog as much as I would like. Many blog entries have been carefully written in my head but never made it to the page (screen).

the ugly Again, nothing major – the only depressing thing is the resounding thud as a carefully tooled blogpost is despatched into the ether to a complete lack of any response…

Blogging Archaeology

Ok, so what is Blogging Archaeology all about? it’s a blog carnival being held in advance of a session Blogging and Archaeology at the forthcoming Society for American Archaeology conference. It’s an opportunity to take a step back and think about the hows and whys of archaeological blogging. Each month before the conference, Doug Rocks-MacQueen, the carnival owner (organiser? impresario?)is asking the participating bloggers a question which they can then get their teeth sunk into. The current cluster of questions are Why blogging? Why are you still blogging? Why have you stopped blogging?, so here goes…
I started blogging on this blog about six years ago. It was something I’d been pondering for a while, I’d been following some other blogs and occasionally had things I wanted to get off my chest or share that I thought might be of interest to others. It was starting my first academic post that was the final spur- I was often coming across interesting items in the news that I wanted to share with my students, so initially it was primarily intended to be a way of sharing this kind of thing, sometimes with a short commentary. I also used it to share other bits and pieces, announcements or personal news (for example, like any proud father, the birth of my first child was featured). However, over time the content and aims of the blog drifted. This was for two key reasons. First, at about the same time I began blogging I also joined Facebook. Fairly quickly, FB became my preferred method of sharing the small links and odd bits of news that I intended the blog for. This was primarily because I had a ready made audience of friends and students on FB, who would pick up, share and comment on them. With the blog, people rarely commented and to be honest, I’m not sure many people read it. FB gave (and still gives) that direct link and facility for easy response and sharing. It doesn’t reach a big external audience, but it doesn’t need to. There are plenty of bigger blogs out there which essentially act as archaeology news sites and aggregators. This was never what I intended my blog to be and frankly I have neither the time nor inclination to make it into one. The second major shift was the fact that I increasingly wanted to make longer and more thoughtful and discursive comments rather than simply posting news items. This meant that the entries got longer and the subject focus shifted somewhat- moving away from straight archaeology and more towards the overlapping worlds of heritage / archaeology / landscape / Englishness / folklore and traditions where my more straight ‘academic’ interests intersected with my wider personal hinterland. I am not sure that Outlandish Knight could now be considered a ‘archaeology blog’.

Looking back at the blog I’ve realised that the number of entries has declined significantly over the last two years. This is for one very simple reason- pressure of time. It takes time to formulate and write a longer blog entry, and having an increasingly pressured day job, small children and the occasional desire to actually get away from a computer screen, I’ve found it hard to force myself to sit and blog. I’ve spent plenty of time formulating entries in my head, but usually the pressure to mark essays, complete grant proposals, prepare teaching or just the desire to see my kids has prevented me from getting it all written down. This is a shame, and I am hoping that this blog carnival will be a kick up the behind to get writing again. There is also perhaps another reason for not writing much, and that has been perhaps harder for me to admit to myself; the blog readership has been relatively small. Whilst I don’t necessarily write for a large audience and much of the entries consist of my personal ponderings, the failure to generate a readership does not encourage one to write.

However, I’ve not been entirely silent on the blog front. I’ve got two other blogs. The most successful by far has been my Roman Binchester blog- this is focused on a major excavation project I run at the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham (UK). This is updated every day we are on site (usually six weeks each summer), with occasional additional updates. This has had a much larger readership, primarily because it is a much more focused product. There is a large audience out there who are interested in the site. Some of the readers are relatively local to me- ie my students, staff colleagues and the many volunteers from the local community. We also have a regular relationship with US students who come and dig with us and have had particular connections with Stanford and Texas Tech – this has provided a wider international readership. Finally, there is a wide general audience interested in Roman archaeology who have followed us and also shared blog links. Combined with some high profile discoveries on site (the Binchester stone head for one) and odd appearances in the media, which also brings in readers, we’ve achieved a healthy but not huge blog following for Roman Binchester. However, whilst I have tried to make it a relatively personal perspective on the project, it is very much a project blog rather than a personal blog but is far my most ‘archaeological’ blog output.

Another blog which I started and has currently become (hopefully temporarily) moribund is my Vale of the White Horse. I reflected on my aims for setting this blog up in my first post on it

Another day, another blog. Unlike my other blog, Outlandish Knight, which is an opportunity for me to randomly witter about everything under the sun (although it mainly seems to be about morris dancing and archaeology), the idea of this blog is a chance for me to focus on one particular area. I want to focus on a small area of countryside in central southern England, the Vale of the White Horse and its hinterland (the Berkshire Downs to the south and a limestone to the north, which separates it from the Upper Thames Valley). Essentially, I’m looking at the valley and watershed of the Ock, a small river that joins the Thames at Abingdon. Historically this area constituted the northern marches of Berkshire, it has for most of my lifetime, been part of Oxfordshire. I’ve briefly explored the personal resonances this area has for me previously, so it is perhaps not surprising that I want to revisit it more extensively. My first inclination was, as a university lecturer, to develop some kind of structured academic research project that encompassed the Vale. However, on reflection I’ve shied away from this approach. This is for a number of reasons. Putting aside the inevitable pressures on my time, I struggled to frame a project that encompassed all the facets of the area I was interested in (including but not limited to prehistoric landscapes; Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash; early medieval Wessex; Goosey, Baulking and Denchworth; medieval churches, the 19th century industrialisation of agriculture; Morris dancing and mumming; place-names; Didcot power station; John Betjeman; lardy cake; bun throwing and the venerable pastime of Aunt Sally). Secondly, I wanted to avoid the strictures of constructing and presenting the material in a traditional format. Instead, I wanted to pull together something that was more impressionistic, more fluid and more deliberately ‘bitty’. In some senses, this chimes quite nicely with current conceptual developments in historical, geographical and landscape writing – I’m particularly thinking of the chorographic turn and the rise of psychogeography. Or to view it in a slightly more reactionary way, sometimes I just want to be an antiquarian rather than archaeologist. So, what can we expect on this blog? I’m not entirely sure yet; hopefully a rough-and-ready collage cum commonplace book focussing on the Vale with words, photos and probably some sounds (if I can work out the technical implications). There are some things I already know I want to write about, but I am also open to serendipity. Needless to say, there will be Morris dancing (you have been warned). “… From this wide vale, where all our married lives We two have lived, we now are whirled away Momently clinging to the things we knew— Friends, footpaths, hedges, house and animals— Till, borne along like twigs and bits of straw, We sink below the sliding stream of time.” On Leaving Wantage – John Betjeman (1972)

Sadly, once again the pressures of time have taken its toll- and it’s not been as regularly updated as planned, but I still hope to chip away with it as and when I can.

In some ways answering Doug’s question has been a slightly depressing experience- it’s made me realise how much a lot of my original intentions in blogging have been unfulfilled – so much of this is due simply to the ever increasing pressures of work and home – but I want to persevere and get back into the groove, so keep checking back, you never know, I might write something interesting…

Jack in the Green, Iffley

Just wanted to share this splendid picture of the Jack in the Green ceremony at Iffley, Oxford. Photograph taken from the excellent Oxfordshire History Centre website. Photo taken in 1886 by William Taunt- who took lots of wonderful early photographs of the Oxfordshire area including some of the Headington Quarry morris side dating to before the meeting of William Kimber and Cecil Sharp.

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.


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.

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?

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.

Archaeology and psychogeography

I’m not going to be able to reach this year’s TAG in Birmingham this year, which is a shame as I’d really like to have gone to the session Psychoarchaeology being organised by Kenneth Brophy and Vicky Cumming.

I have always been surprised how little archaeologists have engaged with the notion of psychogeography. Like many movements, this is a rather protean notion, but it can be seen as a set of techniques that attempt to integrate subjective and objective engagement with the landscape with a particular emphasis on engaging emotionally and politically with what is perceived as capitalist space. With its emphasis on performance and the subversion of conventional historical and social narratives, it is not surprise that psychogeography grew out of the Situationist International of the 1960s.

Archaeology has over the last two decades seen a massive rise in interest in trying to understand the subjective experience of space, heavily influenced by Chris Tilley’s Phenomenology of Landscape one of the ur-texts in the phenomenological movement in archaeology. This perspective on human interaction with the environment, whether ‘natural’ or ‘designed’ has been one of the paradigms that have dominated archaeology in the 1990s and 2000s. One key sub-theme that has been particularly important is that of exploring how past societies interpreted and re-worked earlier monuments, or to put it another way, how they dealt with the past in their present. Initially, these approaches were developed by archaeologists working on prehistoric landscapes, particularly those of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Northern Europe. These were periods when landscapes were seen as being particularly ritualised and symbolically dense, with earlier monuments being continually reworked and re-appropriated for later purposes. This emphasis on the inter-relationship of monuments in the landscape and their subjective experience was something that had been presaged by those working outside mainstream archaeology in what might be called ‘earth mysteries’, a broadly New Age movement, which integrated the personal and spiritual points of view with an interest in folklore and mythology to produce densely allusive and textured readings of prehistoric monuments. Whilst operating in very different spheres, both communities were exploring similar themes.

Despite this close interest in the subjective experience of space, the world of phenomenological archaeology and earth mysteries have generally shown little engagement with psychogeography and vice versa (this is something highlighted in Bob Trubshaw’s recent review of Merlin Coverley’s book Psychogeography)in Time and Mind.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the lack of engagement has been the tendency for psychogeography to have been conceived as an essentially urban phenomenon – whether looking at Flaubert and Guy Debord in Paris or Peter Ackroyd in London, the key figures in the psychogeographic movement have been firmly cosmopolitan (although for individuals moving within world cities their landscapes are often strangely lacking in engagement with ethnicity). Even those who have ventured beyond the confines of the city centre, such as Iain Sinclair or fictionally at least, JG Ballard their milieu has been (sub-)urban; very few have obviously headed into the countryside. In his recent overview of psychogeography, Merlin Coverley claims that one of the key underlying definitions of psychogeography is that it is, in essence, urban. Perhaps underpinning this notion is that the market and capitalism are somehow at heart more urban than rural, an idea clearly at odds with modern perspectives on globalisation that highlight the capillary aspect of free-market capitalism.

What is exciting about the TAG session is that it sees archaeologist attempting to engage explicitly with the notion of psychogeography from an explicitly archaeological perspective (although given the fundamentally cross-disciplinary approach of psychogeography I’m not keen on the neologism ‘psychoarchaeology’). One key way in which archaeology can engage with this approach is through an emphasis on time depth, particularly through the idea of the ‘archaeological imagination’, the creative engagement with the material residue of past societies within the present world. A fundamental aspect of the ‘archaeological imagination’ is the juxtaposition of features from different periods within contemporary spaces, whether on the shelves of a museum or written in the landscape. However, whilst archaeologists have been good at looking at the past in other presents, we’ve not been so good at looking at the past in our own present. This may be because this sphere of action is seen, at heart, as not really ‘archaeology’, but ‘heritage’ or ‘cultural resource management’.

Nonetheless, at heart, what psychogeography and cognate approaches can offer us, is an alternative way to write about the past that moves beyond the traditional period or area survey (not that there is anything wrong with these). One new approach which is being increasingly explored is the notion of chorography – which entails thick description of place, drawing on a range of sources with an explicit engagement with the way in which people have experienced locations physically and emotionally – see Michael Shanks exploration of the idea of ‘deep mapping’.

A recent paper by Darrel Rohl, a graduate student here at Durham, flagged up a number of basic observations about chorographic writing: a focus on space/place, a multi-media approach, an engagement with the spatio-historical, the connection of past and present, an emphasis on the interdependence of human and environment, a de- and re-centering perspective, a present and recognizable authorial voice, a focus on experience, memory and meaning, a degree of native knowledge, requiring real emplaced experiences, a transdisciplinary perspective and it should be qualitatively and quantitatively empirical and critical. It is easy to see how many of these perspectives chime with the aims and objectives of many engaged in study and interpretation of the historic environment, and indeed how many of these approaches have a long genealogy within archaeology.

What surprises me, is the fact that there are so few works by archaeologists in the UK that actively engage in this approach to writing about the past. One reason may be that this kind of discursive work is not seen as sufficiently academic rigorous to past muster with the Research Exercise Framework – a fine example of the stifling impact of the academic audit culture on innovative ways of writing about the past. Whilst there are one or two recent works that very explicitly draw on both chorography and psychogeography, such as Mike Pearson’s wonderfully evocative In Comes I , they are often nonetheless undeniably dense and demanding reads. One of the positives about chorography and pyschogeography is that they provide exciting ways of engaging with the wider public, rather than just exchanging ideas within the academy.

Ironically, in recent years in Britain, there has been an upsurge of popular writing that can be clearly situated in the chorographic tradition. The increasing popularity of writers such as Robert MacFarlane, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin show a popular appetite for writing about the intersection between people and place. However, these writers have all been labelled as ‘nature writers’ rather than ‘history writers’, despite the fact that all three write about the relationship between the natural and the human environment and regularly engage with archaeological topics. They are part of a wider resurgence in writing about place, such as Madeline Bunting’s meditation on her childhood in North Yorkshire seen through the perspective of one small area of land (The Plot) is important. Alexandra Harris in a recent article for the New Statesman has drawn parallels between this and the rise of ‘localism’ as a political mantra within the UK political establishment, although she has emphasised the historical rather than ecological dimension to this movement. Despite the recent popularity in this literature, we can perhaps place the origins of the revival back in the mid-1990s with WG Sebald’s Suffolk journey in Rings of Saturn (1995) and Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1995). The latter, a wonderful example of alternative ways of movement within a landscape, including explicit collisions between the desire to move through natural landscapes and the overriding tendency to control access to natural resources even rivers.

The challenge thus remains for archaeologist to try and engage with these alternate perspectives to writing about the past and the present – the TAG session is a start, but the real challenge is to move them from the confines of the lecture theatre and onto the shelves of the nearest bookshop.

Review: Way of the Morris

I’ve finally had a chance to see Tim Plester’s excellent documentary The Way of the Morris on DVD having missed it when it was briefly on general release.

The morris is one of England’s traditional dance traditions. It is also one that is very easy to mock – it is hard to take too seriously men garlanded in flowers and bells frolicking in country lanes. Indeed, morris dancing’s last significant cinematic outing Morris: A Life With Bells On went down the tongue-in-cheek road. However, this new film takes a far more thoughtful look at the dance. It is not a straight historical overview of the dance or a search for its origins. Instead, at its heart is the director’s changing personal relationship with the tradition in his home village. A native of Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, his father and uncle were closely involved in the revival of the dance in the village in the 1970s. Despite this, he himself had never been taken part and had seen his connection with Morris as a skeleton in his closet. Over the course of this film, he speaks to those involved in the resurrection of the dance during the folk rock revival of the early 70s (Fairport Convention; Morris On). He follows the village side to the war graves and cemeteries of the Eastern France, where all but one of those who danced before WWI were killed. Only one, Charlie Coleman, returned, and he could not face dancing again. Touchingly, he was still alive in the village when the dance was revived and able to see the new side dance outside his cottage. It is perhaps inevitable that Plester ends up taking his father’s bells, hanky and baldric and taking his place in the morris team.
It is easy to describe films such as this as ‘elegaic’, and it certainly does look back to the end of the old agrarian way of life finished off by the Great War. However, it is also optimistic and forward looking underlining the continued enthusiasm for the morris in the village reflecting a wider national renewed engagement with local dance traditions. One of the strongest aspects of the film is that it explores the over-simplistic distinction between the old unbroken traditions and the 20th century revivals – initially promoted by Sharpe, Neal, Karpeles, Butterworth et al in the Edwardian period but with later upsurges in popularity. In many cases, such as at Adderbury, where although the tradition was broken, the new revivals looked backwards to these sides building on personal, often familial connections and making use of the records and transcriptions made by Sharpe and in this case of Adderbury in particular, Janet Heatley Blunt [http://library.efdss.org/archives/aboutblunt.html]
Apart from a slightly mystical introductory sequence that sits a little ill at ease with the rest of the film, this film manages to tread the tricky balance of treating morris dancing seriously without being po-faced about it and acknowledging the slightly silly side of it all. It shows the dancers to be thoughtful and introspective about the dance and the reasons for its survival and the importance of preventing it becoming a slightly middle-class re-invention of an essentially working class tradition.