Treasure found in river

Seeing the headline ‘Treasure found in river’, most Current Archaeology readers would probably think ‘Bronze Age deposition’, but this haul of loot, found by amateur divers Trevor and Gary Bankhead on the bed of Durham’s River Wear, are of a more recent vintage.

In the course of the 300 dives conducted, the Bankhead brothers discovered at least 32 artefacts, including a medallion commemorating the Queen’s coronation in 1952, an ornate silver trowel that was used for laying the foundation stone of an Indian church in 1961, gold, silver, and bronze medals struck to commemorate the Second Vatican Council of 1962—1965, a silver medal struck by the Greek Orthodox Church and gold medal of 1973 commemorating the Japanese Buddhist movement.

What links them is that they were all presented to Baron Ramsey of Canterbury (1904—1988), better known as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lived in Durham (where he had once served as bishop) for part of his retirement. So could it have been that a thief burgled Ramsay’s house, then panicked and thrown the loot into the river? Apparently not: the police say they have no record of any reported break-in at the Ramsey home.

The Bankhead brothers have their own theory: that Lord Ramsey deliberately threw them into the river as a ‘gift’ to a city that had given him so much. Anne Heywood, chapter steward at Durham Cathedral, described this idea as ‘pure speculation’, as well she might, given that this would link the former head of the Anglican church to some decidedly pagan practices.

It is hoped that the recovered items will eventually go on display in Durham’s cathedral treasury, where their interest will surely lie far more in the circumstances of their recovery than in any intrinsic value.

Listing for seaside shelter

It is assumed Lord Ramsey made his offerings in a positive frame of mind: or maybe he wanted rid himself of objects that, for reasons known only to himself, might have been the cause of unhappy memories. With that in mind, one wonders what T S Eliot would have made of the recent listing of a seaside shelter overlooking Margate Bay where the poet wrote much of Part III of The Waste Land.

Eliot was in Margate as part of a rest cure following a mental breakdown, spending three weeks at the Albemarle Hotel in 1921. Water, in this poem, is not so much a regenerative force as a symbol of the circularity and pointlessness of life. Eliot’s feelings at the time are best summed up in the poem’s songlike refrain:

On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

Such bleak sentiments sit rather oddly with the comments of Peter Beacham, Director for Heritage Protection at English Heritage, who welcomed the Grade II listing by describing T S Eliot as ‘the nation’s much-loved poet’, and stating that ‘English Heritage is happy to join in with the poetry of life!’ (perhaps he was thinking of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Eliot’s whimsical poems that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats). Eliot himself cheered up later in life and dismissed The Waste Land as ‘just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’, though it secured Eliot’s reputation as the leading poet of his generation, and paved the way to his 1948 Nobel Prize.

Farewell to Claude Lévi-Strauss

Just as lines from Eliot’s verse are etched into the brains of many Current Archaeology readers — at least, those thousands of us who studied The Waste Land for English A level — so have many of us been influenced by the thinking of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the social anthropologist who died a few days short of his 101st birthday on 30 October 2009. Lévi-Strauss is credited with developing the ideas that have come to be known as ‘structuralism’. At its simplest, ‘structural anthropology’ is a system of analysis that looks for deeper meaning in all human activities — from food preparation to religious rites, and from the decoration of a pot to the disposition of dwellings or disposal pits in a settlement.

Structuralism was adopted by many lesser minds — not least literary theorists in the 1970s, who tore English faculties asunder with their attacks on those who taught more traditional forms of literary criticism and who believed that all human creativity could be analysed in terms of a set of fundamental archetypes. Consequently, Bob Dylan’s lyrics were held to be on a par with Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Lévi-Strauss, himself, was antagonistic to such reductionist arguments: quite apart from anything else, they imply that nothing ever changes. He always sought explanations for culture that remain true to the richness and specificity and intellectual achievement of the original material.

Most archaeologists and anthropologists today are his heirs. Lévi-Strauss taught us to take nothing at face value and to question the meaning, in terms of human belief and behaviour, of the patterns of material culture that we study and record (and perhaps he might have been the one person who could have explained Lord Ramsay’s behaviour).

Archaeology in The Big Issue

It is highly likely that John Schofield (the English Heritage archaeologist of that name, rather than the Museum of London version) is a fan of Lévi-Strauss, for John has developed a well-deserved reputation for imaginative thinking about the archaeology of the modern world, and especially the less attractive aspects that tend to be ‘air-brushed’ out of our accounts of social and cultural history: hence John’s latest book (see Reviews) on the materiality of key moments in 20th century history (for those who don’t like theoretical terms, for ‘materiality’ read the ‘stuff’ that gets left behind as a result of human activity).

John’s most recent project involves studying the ‘stuff’ of homelessness, and a feature about his work has appeared, appropriately enough, in The Big Issue, perhaps the first time that the word ‘archaeology’ has featured on the front cover of that magazine. And why not, you might ask? After all, is the homeless person today all that different from the huntergatherer of the Mesolithic, seeking to survive the rigours of a cold winter’s night?

Schofield discovers that some homeless people live very ordered lives; he admires their skill in constructing a dry and warm shelter from layers of blankets and duvets and vegetation, all of which can be packed into a rucksack at a moment’s notice. As for the tangible remains of rough sleeping, they are somewhat predictable — Kestrel lager cans, jumpers and blankets, an empty cigarette packet — but they do make us wonder about the degree to which our prehistoric ancestors might also have made use of alcohol to anesthetise them against the hardships of survival. John wants us all to recognise that ‘heritage’ is not just about the pretty bits and should include the whole of human experience. He has offered to give a lecture on the subject to the Society of Antiquaries — so long as he can share the lecture podium with some of the rough sleepers who have helped him with the project.

The Archers: an everyday story of archaeological folk

It is also a fairly safe bet that there are many Archers fans amongst Current Archaeology‘s readership — hooked on the Sunday morning omnibus edition of the world’s longest running serial. Sadly, Norman Painting, the actor who played Phil Archer in the series from its very first broadcast on 1 January 1951, died on 29 October 2009.

Had he not been picked for the part of Phil Archer, it is likely that his obituaries would be celebrating his career as an archaeologist, for Painting was an Anglo-Saxon scholar. After graduating from the University of Birmingham, he went to Christ Church, Oxford, in the latter half of the 1940s to read for a DPhil. Here he came under the influence of Richard Atkinson and dug with him at Dorchester-on-Thames. Painting served as President of the Oxford Archaeological Society at exactly the same time that his Archers career was taking off, and remained friendly with many leading archaeologists for the rest of his life.

After three months of playing the part of Phil Archer in 1951, Norman was still treating it as a temporary job. Godfrey Baseley, who conceived the idea of The Archers, told him not to be such a silly young fool: ‘You’ve got a secure job here for life,’ he told him, with great foresight. Painting went on to write the scripts for 1,200-plus episodes of The Archers; if the programme often presented archaeology and local history studies in a favourable light (by contrast with Eddie Grundy’s comic attempts to get rich quick with a metal detector), Painting’s early passion for digging might be the reason why.

February 2010

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