Let it grow
One can only applaud the National Trust’s decision to create 1,000 allotments within its disused walled gardens and on land within its estates, even if that number is tiny compared to the 100,000 people currently on allotment waiting lists. Archaeologists have always made good gardeners: one Winchester-based pottery specialist, sadly no longer with us, used to win all the prizes at the local produce show. Another well-known Roman archaeologist retired to the west of England some years ago where he has the perfect arrangement with the local pub: he does their garden in return for free beer. Yet another busy and well-known former county archaeologist finds time not only to manage an allotment, but also to tend the lovely public gardens round Kettles Yard and St Peter’s Church, on Castle Hill, in Cambridge; while a fourth regularly sends correspondents bulletins on the state of his gooseberries along with learned papers on medieval archaeology in Wales.
But there is an even closer connection between gardening and archaeology: since the Neolithic, growing what you eat has been essential to human survival. Lose those skills and you produce people whose connection to the environment – natural and historic – is tenuous, which rapidly leads to the degradation of the environment because nobody understands or cares any more. Rebuilding our ancient connection with the land might not be the entire answer to every problem that besets the world but it makes us better archaeologists by bringing us closer to the daily lives of our forebears, their tools and their skills. Francis Pryor used to say that he has learned as much about the historic landscape from being a sheep farmer as from digging it. So, to quote Eric Clapton, ‘Let it grow, let it grow / Let it blossom, let it flow’.
The new sport of bison spearing
Another way to connect with our ancestors is to take up a sport that is growing in popularity amongst US archaeology students, according to the Archaeological Institute of America. The Institute’s Archaeology magazine profiles Celine Rainville, captain of the Hurling Ravens, of Franklin Pierce University, whose members compete with teams from other US archaeology and anthropology departments in spear-throwing contests, using weapons based on those devised by hunter-gatherers for hunting game.
Today’s target is more likely to be a polystyrene deer decoy than a live bison. Teams of up to 20 members compete to win points for accuracy and distance of throw: the best competitors can hurl a spear more than 500 feet. Currently top of the spear-hurling league is the University of Vermont, who beat the Hurling Ravens into second place last year. Says Celine, ‘it really makes the past more tangible; I motivate the team by telling them they haven’t eaten for a week and they’re going to have to hit this deer if they want food.’
Brookside Close: heritage at risk?
If you were in charge of listings decisions at English Heritage what would you do about Brookside Close, the very real housing estate in Croxteth, Liverpool that served for 21 years as the location for the Channel 4 soap of the same name? Created by Phil Redmond and starring the likes of Anna Friel, Amanda Burton and Ricky Tomlinson, Brookside was first screened on Channel 4’s launch night in November 1982 and in later years featured incest, domestic violence, an armed siege, bodies under the patio and the UK’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss.
The series pioneered the kind of steamy and histrionic plots that now dominate TV soaps, and the application that went to English Heritage last year to list the estate made much of its significance to popular cultural history. English Heritage decided otherwise, and the decaying houses, their patios and gardens now choked with weeds – having stood empty since the series ended in 2003 – were sold at auction without the benefit of listing last December; they fetched £735,000, an average of £57,000 per home.
Gordon Brown’s Museum of British History
Fans of Yes Minister will relish the way that civil servants and policy makers have responded to Gordon Brown’s desire to create a Museum of British History that will ‘celebrate the great British values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped’.
It is not easy to say ‘no’ to the Prime Minister; on the other hand, do we really need a new national museum (remember Sheffield’s Popular Music Museum or Doncaster’s Earth Centre anyone?). How clever, then, of the review team led by Roy Clare of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to have come up with the idea that, rather than creating a ‘traditional, physical museum in a fixed location with its own collections and buildings’, they would propose a virtual museum, based on a ‘federated approach, drawing on existing collections to create a programme of exhibitions and educational projects’.
The report to the Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, argues that a traditional museum would ‘fail to attract wide, non-traditional audiences, and would do little to engage individuals and communities in ways that might promote broader cultural understanding and foster feelings of shared identity’. Instead, it recommends the establishment of a ‘Museum Centre for British History’ whose staff would ‘pull together research, planning and programming around the theme of Britain’s story, from existing museums, heritage sites, libraries and archives’. Much use would be made of that all purpose get-out, the internet, to deliver ‘virtual resources’.
Will it work? The Department of Culture has yet to respond but, if it buys this solution, the ‘Museum of British History’ could become a classic case study for training future civil servants: how to secure extra funds for existing museums, create new jobs and tick all the New Labour policy boxes about access, British values and new technology, all by saying, in effect, ‘no, Prime Minister’. Hats off to Sir Humphrey.
How to fund the Olympics
CA 229 reported on the storm of protest that erupted over the removal of artefacts from a wreck claimed as HMS Victory, supposedly with the knowledge of the UK Government and in apparent contravention of the UNESCO convention on maritime heritage. While the truth of the matter remains under investigation, one wonders whether this was not a secret government ruse for filling the bottomless Olympic coffers.
Perhaps the Olympics Secretary, Tessa Jowell, was looking to Puerto Rico for inspiration. There the island’s national assembly has been asked to approve a plan to fund its hosting of the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games by excavating a wreck that is said to be packed with gold and silver coins. Found in 1991, and one of some 200 ships wrecked off Puerto Rico’s coast in the last 500 years, the ship is said to have sunk with the accumulated loot from privateer John Hawkins’s treasure-hunting voyage of 1595.
So far, it has only yielded bottles and jugs, but with a US$30 million hole to fill in the budget for next year’s games, Puerto Rican senators are hoping that ‘a voyage to the bottom of the ocean could save the event’.
Taking work home
CA 229 also reported on the Nighthawking report, and what it had to say on the scale of illegal treasure hunting in England. But the largest-ever case of heritage theft, in terms of sheer quantity, remains the little-known case of John Nevin, who worked at the Victorian and Albert Museum as a Senior Museum Assistant from 1944 to 1953. Put in charge of the stores to which museum objects had been evacuated during the war, Nevin became fond of taking his work home with him. In fact he decorated his three-bedroomed bungalow at 9 Nightingale Close, Chiswick, entirely with textiles, sculptures, swords, guns, silverware and tableware stolen from museum.
When police eventually arrived on the doorstep, Nevin’s wife answered the door wearing an apron made from an 18th-century church-vestment; the bag she used for shopping trips turned out to be a 19th-century Italian leather and tortoiseshell handbag. When all the stolen objects were removed, all that was left in the otherwise empty bungalow was some bed linen and clothing.
When arrested, the couple claimed the items had been bought second hand or had been given to them as wedding presents. Nevin then made an ‘ineffectual gesture of suicide’ by drinking half a glass of cough mixture. Brought before West London magistrates in June 1954, he pleaded guilty to 24 specimen counts of theft, and asked for 2,042 other items to be taken into consideration. At the end of his three years prison sentence, he even had the nerve to go back to the museum and ask for a pension, so that he might ‘make a new and honest start in life’.
From CA 230