Marxism in archaeology c.1967

I found a fascinating book in the “All Books £1” basement at Housmans near Kings Cross: a bibliography of Marxist-influenced historical research, published in 1967. Compiled by the marxist historians Lionel Munby and Ernst Wangermann, it’s a fascinating snapshot of a vibrant and still (to me at least) brilliant era of activist scholarship.

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I was particularly interested to see what was listed under archaeology.  Here’s the relevant pages (apologies for the poor quality images):

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The long lists of works by Gordon Childe are to be expected – he was one of the foremost Marxist intellectuals of his time, and certainly its leading exponent in archaeology. He was never a Communist Party member, instead beating his own path through marxist theory from its Hegelian roots towards a quasi-New Left perspective similar to E.P. Thompson’s, although this is open to fiery debate.

I’m interested in the other names listed as well. I’m surprised to see Moses Finley described as a marxist, and listed alongside the hack writer Jack Lindsay. I’d not heard of the classicist Ronald Willetts who makes several appearances on the list, and I can’t find any reference to his work as particularly marx-flavoured either.

Altogether this is a fascinating relic and one that recollects a time when Marxism was a powerful intellectual force in economic, social and political history in Britain, with influence far beyond the membership of the Communist Party.

Public Archaeology (some common types)

One of the fun and frustrating things about public archaeology is that everybody who works in the field defines the term “public archaeology” in different ways. Some of these distinctions are quite subtle, some … not so much.

I’ve put together a little chart that explains some of the different kinds of public archaeology, in no particular order or rank.

For what it’s worth, at one point or other I’ve done all the different types listed, but I mostly focus on 1 and 7 now.

I’d be really grateful for feedback and comments: have I missed out any huge and important types of public archaeology? Is this chart useful?  It’s CC so free to do what you want with it.

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Crowdfunding an Oral History Project

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The archaeology of London is fascinating, and the story of archaeological work in London is also pretty interesting. The story of Roman and Medieval London emerged as a patchwork from beneath the cellars of bombed buildings in the years after 1945, and continues to be told on building sites, developments and the Thames foreshore.  For some time I’ve been trying to get a project started to record the memories of archaeologists who’ve worked in London in the years since 1945, so that their experiences and anecdotes of their working lives can become part of the recorded history of London alongside the boxes of finds from the sites that they excavated.

I’m now working with Micropasts, a crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platform developed by UCL and the British Museum, to raise £1000 for a pilot project.  This will enable us to buy recording equipment, storage media, and a training course in oral history for the team of volunteers who will work on the project.  The details of the project, including a very cute video that we made, can be found here.

Please take the time to watch the video, read about the project, tell your friends and colleagues about it, and if you think it sounds worthwhile – chuck us a fiver.  We’ll be eternally in your debt.

New(ish) Staffordshire Hoard book

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Most archaeologists are shit at communicating their work to the public, most of the time, so the exceptions are worth celebrating.  One of the best means of spreading the word about important sites, finds, periods and peoples is short, clearly-written, well-illustrated books.  Shire have been doing these for decades, and their recent books in full colour are fantastic.  The Council for British Archaeology’s recent book about Star Carr – written by the research team – is a bit longer, but notable for not talking down to the reader, and again – great pictures.

The British Museum have always been good at this sort of thing.  I’ve just got my hands on the new edition of the Staffordshire Hoard book by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland, and it is a thing of beauty.  The first edition was rushed out in 2009 soon after the hoard’s discovery in an (understandable) effort to cash in on the publicity around the find – and to fundraise for its conservation and purchase.  This second edition is longer, more detailed, and benefits from the detailed analyses of the hoard by experts over the intervening five years.

The images in the book are mind-bogglingly gorgeous and personally I could stare at them for hours, but the text is also excellent and succinct. The section on the technologies available to the craftspeople who made the objects is particularly illuminating, and there’s good background sections on the period, other relevant finds such as the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and the future of research on the hoard itself.

In short, buy this book – it’s a steal at £5.99 – hell, at that price it’d be a bargain for the photographs alone.

Paper dolls to cut out and play!

Haven’t you always wanted paper dolls of famous archaeologists that you can cut out and play with? Maybe make clothes and hats for them? Hold tea parties for them, you sad bastard? Well want no more. I give you: Mortimer Wheeler and Tessa Verney Wheeler, the archaeology dream team of pre-war England and Wales.

Download, print, cutout and go! So many ways to play:

See her dig!
See him watch her dig, then go fishing for a bit!
See her organise and manage excavations!
See him cheat on her!

Wheelers cutout dolls

Digging!

I spent the first half of August excavating a rather fascinating Iron Age and Romano-British site in Hampshire, the first season of what will hopefully become an annual project. The dig was run by Tim Schadla-Hall and I with a brilliant team of friends, family, locals, and members of the Basingstoke Archaeological and Historical Society. No results to report yet – the location of the site is being kept under wraps at the landowners’ request – but I’m very much looking forward to going back next summer!

Camping on the farm was fun – there were 2 kettles and a power shower, which makes everything else ok really. Cooking for the team over an ancient electric ring, with a motley array of utensils was an experience, but at least nobody died. The comic below is the ‘edited highlights’ of the dig.

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Warsaw’s Palace of Culture

Pretty much everybody I asked about Warsaw said that it was horrible, and that I should visit Krakow instead.  But I’ve been to Krakow a few times, and Warsaw sounded interesting, not least because of the whole “totally destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt mostly from concrete” thing.  Having now spent a weekend there with M (I tagged along on her work trip) I can say that Warsaw is beautiful (in parts) and great fun, especially if you like Polish-style fine dining as much as we do, and traipsing around historic sites as much as I do. Note the distinction.

One place really stood out: the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science loomed over the trip, rather as it looms over Warsaw.  My dad told me that it was huge, horrible and impressive, and I have a soft spot for creatively foul architecture – particularly if it looks like the Shandor Building from Ghostbusters.

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Ghostbusters. Am I right or what?

The idea of the Palaces of Culture is a fascinating one – they were hubs of artistic, cultural, sporting and other leisure activities in former Soviet Bloc countries, controlled (of course) by the state.

Communism’s gone, but Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (formerly the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science) remains.  It doesn’t just remain, it looms, and I imagine it still gives some older Poles the willies.  It’s still the tallest building in Poland at 237m, and takes up the ground space of several old city blocks.

What fascinates me about it?  Well, everything.  The archaeology of the modern world (wot I do) includes thinking about things like this – stuff left behind, stuff out of time.  Also, it’s ugly, but in a really creative and very Soviet way – thumpingly unsubtle – but still I couldn’t stop staring at it.  I walked around the outside (which took about half an hour) and marvelled at the horrible statues.

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Pull your trousers up, man.

Just out of shot in the image above – the neon sign for a nightclub.  What would Lenin say to that?  (we know Marx and Engels were up for a party)

Also, bits of it looked like a fancy 1920s American railway station.

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And to be honest, bits were falling apart.  Weeds were growing up between the stones on the staircases, pushing them apart.  Bits of the exterior were rusting, crumbling and falling off.

Some of the things made me smile, like the sign assuring us that the lifts were NOT Soviet, but were new and very safe.  And the old-fashioned wooden telephone booths that looked as if George Smiley should be lurking inside one of them.

Also, the art.  Oh my, the art.

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Words kind of failed me here.

I think it’s appropriate that I visited it first in the rain, with barely anybody else around except some drinkers under one of the entrances and a bunch of police evicting them.  I could wander around in a kind of daze, taking crap rainy photos.  Then I found this metal marker on the ground beside the main entrance, showing where the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto had run.

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That was weird, and a powerful reminder that the Palace of Culture was built in the early 1950s in a city pretty much annihilated – a blank canvas for redevelopment.  Some of it was rebuilt just as it’d been before, other bits were turned into the Palace of Culture.  So it goes.  (Great photos of the construction of the Palace here, and a history of the building here)

All in all, the Palace of Culture seemed like a massive alien spaceship from Planet Stalinism that had landed in the modern, steel n’ glass city centre, right across from M&S and T.K. Maxx.  I kind of love it.

Next up, I’ll write something about the equally amazing Museum of Technology inside the Palace of Culture, with its collections of old whisks and its miniature steelworks.