Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Archaeology of Pokemon

So there I was, absentmindedly flicking between TV channels, when it happened...I discovered the future of archaeology. As with all things, the future appears to be Japanese.
The programme, a (very) short documentary, focused upon the pioneering work of one Professor Cedric Juniper, currently engaged in the archaeological examination of the White Ruins, a site I cannot place using Google Earth (other geographical search engines are (not) available), but which I guess must be somewhere deep inside Japan.

Juniper, a man with rather distracting tastes in facial furniture (like half an Easter Egg strapped to his chin) and a Tin Tin-esque quiff proved to be a classic example of the archaeo-boffin, a literal 'Egg-head' possessing a tricky relationship with Real People and the Real World (TM) and an archaic mode of speech that made his conversations (and chain of thought) rather difficult to follow. 

He also appears to have a worrying degree of control over his field team, all of whom are kitted out in designer archeo-uniforms, a strict dress code of khaki paramilitary style shirts, shorts and pith helmets being enforced upon all members of the expedition. 

This rather eccentric attitude seems, however, to be forgiven by the relevant heritage authorities given Juniper's undoubted success in the use of robotic excavation and survey equipment,

large amounts of rubble being cleared (scientifically) in a matter of minutes,

allowing Juniper and his team to directly access the main burial chamber of the monumental tomb without having to spend days mindlessly recording anything.

In fact all kind of 'traditional ' recording tools (cameras, context sheet, plans, sections, notebooks) seem to be unnecessary and are entirely dispensed with under the new Juniper-regime of robotic excavation. To say that the documentary left me 'gob-smacked' is an understatement. The whole nature and ethos of archaeological examination has been completely overturned by Professor Juniper's pioneering research and I await to see how soon his methods of survey, excavation and recording are adopted in the UK.
OK so, having got to the main burial chamber, the Professor managed to unleash a powerful supernatural nasty with the power to eradicate humanity.... 

....but hey, nobody's perfect.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Moanhenge 2: Goodbye Tarmac, Hello Obama

I was reviewing the Sunday papers a few weeks ago in a local radio station (I know, wacky eh?) where I had a creeping sense of dread that there wouldn't actually be anything in the news that I was even remotely qualified to talk about (it all being relentlessly depressing). This was a big concern, having been given two requests by the show's producer namely 'find something historical / heritage related' and 'keep it light'. Luckily I needn't have worried for there is one archeo-staple that you can be sure will always be in the papers, especially on a Sunday:


This time it wasn't the road closures / land-train / entrance price / druids / display of human remains / startling new interpretation etc etc, but the very simple story concerning the surprise visit by the US president to a set of sarsen boulders 'somewhere' in the Wiltshire landscape.

Apparently it had been on his 'bucket list' for some time and, if the photos are any judge, it looked like he had a good time.

My only worry is that he didn't get the complete Stonehenge experience. No gift shop, no land-train, no chance to see or walk within the wider landscape, no chance to eat cake.
The visitor experience at Europe's most iconic archaeological site is, of course, currently undergoing significant modification. The road that ran so perilously close to the monument, allowing trucks, coaches and cars to thunder across the line of the Avenue, severing Stonehenge from its immediate environs, has gone, whilst the car park, ticket office and concrete bunker-style gift-shop and adjoining café, are all being demolished, and that's all good...
...isn't it?
Well yes, of course, removing some of the more intrusive 20th and 21st century buildings and returning a more 'natural' feel to this much neglected site is, and will continue to be, hugely beneficial, drastically improving both the environment and the overall visitor experience (although whether it really does reduce numbers at the stones is a matter for debate), opening up the surrounding landscape and permitting better access to the Avenue, Cursus and surrounding barrow groups.
But (there's always a ‘but’) I must admit a degree of sadness at the loss of certain parts of the 'old' Stonehenge property. Certainly the new visitor centre should be applauded, especially given that, throughout the 20th century, there was no on-site museum, interpretation or display. OK so I remain to be convinced about the exterior of said new-build, which looks a bit like an unfinished motorway service station
but the interior is uniformly excellent. Larger shop (always good) indoor café (even better) and best of all a set of displays, artefact show-cases and interactive thingamys explaining the who, what, why and wherefore of Stonehenge. Here you can at last learn about the monument and about the Neolithic and Bronze Age and all the many periods of antiquarian and later investigation conducted, and I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the many interpretations of the stone structure being discussed by leading experts who used words like 'Wiltshire', 'Tradition' and 'Wales'
or who spent time explaining why they like wearing clothes with maps of Europe and Africa printed on them
All in all then, the experience for visitors has improved considerably, although poor Mr Obama obviously did not have time to fully appreciate this, being cajoled by his bodyguard to return to his helicopter and the defence of the free-world as soon as politely possible.
But (there we go again), I still can't help but feel nostalgia for what has gone. Having spent so much time in the old tarmac covered car park, complete with its incongruous circular white-blobs, painted to show where Mesolithic timber posts once stood (and which always confused unwary motorists), buying 'Stonehenge rock cakes' and (the rather unappealingly named) 'Aubrey-hole doughnuts' (and eating them sat on a windswept bench watching parties of German, French and Japanese tourists flock past) as well as spending time (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) in the old-bunker shop (buying stick-on druid beards and snow-globes) and deep-set underground toilet facilities, I do feel rather sad that these are things that have now, together with the road, houses, petrol station, airfield etc, all been consigned to archaeological history. Is that just me......? is just me isn't it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Lumpy Bumpy Pudding

I read the obituary of Jocelyn Stevens today. I never met the man, nor came into contact with him so I cannot offer an opinion as to his character. I was not one of the 700 people whose jobs he cut when he was chairman of English Heritage, nor was I one of the people he sacked when he was in charge of the Royal College of Arts. I was not one of the people who claimed he was, as reported in today's Times "a monstrous bully" or whom he apparently humiliated, abused or regularly shouted at. I did not see the sign on his door that read "The floggings will continue until morale improves" and I did not give him the nickname 'Piranha Teeth' (that was, by all accounts, Private Eye). In short, therefore, I have nothing really to add concerning his life, reputation and legacy....

....except, one thing that every obituary or remembrance failed to recall, amongst the many sayings, comments and outbursts recited in the press, was his very public dismissal, whilst chairman of English Heritage (an appointment that one person at the time, in 1992, commented was "Like putting King Herod in charge of child care") of the UK archaeological resource as "just lumps and bumps in the ground".

Now I like lumps and bumps (especially in Lumpy Bumpy Pudding), but this wholesale dissing of the cultural heritage which he, as chairman, was supposed to be protecting and fighting to preserve, conserve and celebrate, has curiously stayed with me to this day. It's a reflection of the mind-set that all members of the Thatcher / Major regime adhered to and it is, sadly, one that still appears to infect the minds of politicians of whatever hue.

Amazing what things stay with you; what things that you can never, ever forgive.