Excavating the CA archive: modern archaeology

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 2 November. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI333, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

During the last four issues I have reviewed CA’s chronological reporting over the years. This latest column completes the set, considering CA’s coverage of early modern and modern heritage: everything from 1485 to 1985, and even a bit more recent than that.

The archaeology of the early modern and modern eras is an intriguing one; for CA’s North American readers, for example, historical archaeology of this type is a familiar subject with a long academic pedigree. But in other parts of the world, including Britain, the emergence of the topic as a legitimate pursuit runs to a similar timescale as the history of CA itself.

A case in point is the first ever post-modern site report in CA, in issue 35 (November 1972, which coincidentally also saw the first use of colour photographs in the magazine), which reported on work then underway on the Girona, a Spanish Armada shipwreck of 1588 lying off County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Maritime archaeology is now an established part of the archaeological world, but back in the 1970s it was still in its infancy, an often unruly and at times distrusted newcomer. Thankfully, more fieldwork, especially that on the Mary Rose, now so triumphantly installed in its excellent museum in Portsmouth (see, for example, CA 85, 218, and 272), persuaded everyone that the subject had merit. Other marine sites then followed, both newer (such as the 17th-century wreck of the Swan off Scotland’s west coast in CA 197 and 329) and older, most notably of late the extraordinary discoveries of submerged prehistoric landscapes such as ‘Doggerland’ (see CA 314).

CA 141’s cover star was the wooden waggonway discovered at the Bersham ironworks.
Industrial Pursuits

Another new arrival to the world of archaeology that emerged concurrent to Current Archaeology is the study of industrial archaeology. Back when the magazine was first published in 1967, this was definitely not a subject on many people’s radar – much like maritime archaeology, it was viewed by many as an eccentricity. But as with maritime archaeology, dedicated individuals and exceptional sites gradually turned opinion in its favour. By CA 112 (December 1988), it was time for a cover story with an in-depth examination of post-medieval glassmaking at Stourbridge.

An archaeologist examines an upturned gun-carriage on the wreck site of the Swan. The wreck appeared in CA 197 and more recently in CA 329.

Once this had set the tone, industrial stories then rightly became a consistent presence in CA’s coverage. CA 141 (December 1994), for example, featured the oldest excavated railway in the world, an 18th-century wooden waggonway at the Bersham ironworks near Wrexham in north Wales, which was built to bring coal and iron ore to the blast furnaces there. Thanks to such sites, a decade later CA 216 (March 2008) was able to celebrate 50 years of industrial archaeology, in particular profiling one individual, Sir Neil Cossons, who was – and remains to this day – an outstanding champion of this field. A similar such overview was produced for the marine community in CA 286 (January 2014) on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.

Guns, Germs and Steel

In a Venn diagram of early modern and modern archaeology, if maritime and industrial heritage are prominent features then so is military heritage, especially that of the 20th century. In the current centenary period commemorating the sacrifices made during the First World War, both abroad and at home, we have become familiar with the range of sites from this date (and later) that survive across the country, but once again this is a subject that has not always been as respected as it might have been. The first specific mention of 20th-century military ‘archaeology’ that I can find in CA (and readers, do please correct me if I have got this wrong) comes in issue 149 (September 1996), with a review of the then ongoing ‘Defence of Britain’ Project. Since then, other surveys of specifically World War and Cold War heritage have followed, alongside site-specific reporting in the magazine.

An example of the latter appears in CA 206 (November/December 2006), reporting on the first ever archaeological investigation of a First World War Zeppelin airship crash site, the L48, which was lost in June 1917 near Theberton in Suffolk. In contrast, CA 228 (March 2009) discussed a later conflict, examining surviving Second World War defences in south London’s Shooters Hill – particularly those associated with the ‘Home Guard’ of TV show Dad’s Army fame.

Home is where the heart is
Among the more modern sites featured in the magazine are the surviving Second World War defences in Shooters Hill, London.

Not all of CA’s reporting of modern sites has been as brutally industrial as the previous examples might suggest, though. A consistent topic of interest has been the exploration of homes from this period – the very grand and the equally modest alike. One of the most unusual sites ever visited by CA (and arguably the most recent, by date, that CA has ever reported on) came in CA 154 (September 1997), when the National Trust acquired 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, the modest post-war former home of Paul McCartney (since 2002 joined in NT ownership with nearby 251 Menlove Avenue, once the residence of John Lennon).

On a totally different note, CA 232 (July 2009) reported on one of the earliest of early modern sites and also one of the grandest: Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, at that time subject to extensive works recreating the Elizabethan garden. In many ways, these two sites – from a 1950s suburban semi to a grandiose 1570s castle – sum up both the complexities and the allure of such recent heritage, subject to acclaim and criticism alike but, crucially, open to the public and open for debate. Long may such sites and debates continue to be cherished, and long may magazines such as CA exist to help with that.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 2 November. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI333’.

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