Excavating the CA archive: Mick Aston and Chris Gerrard at Shapwick

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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 1 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 DIGI345, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

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

Last month’s ‘great excavation’ (CA 344) explored prehistoric Somerset through the work of John and Bryony Coles along the Sweet Track. In this month’s column, I stick with the same county, but move to a different era and two very different ‘great’ archaeologists: Mick Aston and Chris Gerrard at Shapwick. Chris (a professor at Durham University) was quick to emphasise in his obituary tribute to Mick (see http://antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/aston.html) that ‘Mick was rarely seen with a trowel in his hand. As a landscape archaeologist, the tools of his trade were maps and historical records; he liked to trudge the muddy fields, survey and interpret the earthworks, not dig deep holes’. But make no mistake: as much as Mick was (and Chris still is) a great archaeologist, so too was Shapwick a great excavation, deep holes dug or not. Landscape archaeology of this type is a distinctive approach that requires skills encompassing archaeology, history, genealogy, and geography. Such varied talents are undoubtedly one of the reasons why Mick was so good on TV, weaving the different threads of a landscape’s history into a clear and evocative narrative.

CA 282 paid tribute to Mick Aston after his death in 2013.

Mick’s is a name that needs no introduction, and not just to the readers of CA: he challenges Mortimer Wheeler for the crown of being the most famous British archaeologist of all time. Like Wheeler, beyond the media stardom, Mick was a serious and dedicated archaeologist of longstanding, especially in and around Somerset, where he was the first county archaeologist. (Incidentally, the much-admired successor to Mick in Somerset was – and still is – Bob Croft, who cut his teeth digging at another ‘great excavation’, that of Wharram Percy, featured in my column in CA 340.)

Mick’s first ever appearance in CA, was not in Somerset, however, but rather in Oxfordshire, when he was field officer of the M40 Archaeological Research Group, employed to excavate the line of the motorway prior to its construction – a project explored in CA 26 (May 1971) and CA 35 (November 1972). It isn’t mentioned in the magazine, but it was during Mick’s tenure here that he first dipped his toes into media archaeology, presenting a series of broadcasts on Radio Oxford. From Oxfordshire, he moved in 1974 to Somerset, where he worked as county archaeologist until he moved into academia in 1978.

Mick’s work has regularly featured in CA over the decades. In 1996, CA 148 took a look at Witham Carthusian monastery in his home county of Somerset.-

From his base in Somerset, Mick was able to dedicate himself full-time to his landscape research. This resulted in the first of a series of what have become definitive texts on this subject: Interpreting the Landscape (1985), reviewed in CA 106 (September 1987). Mick’s next few mentions in CA are all linked to that TV show. But Time Team by no means took up all of his energies, as CA 148 (June 1996) demonstrated, exploring the work of a team led by Robert Wilson-North at Witham Carthusian monastery, in – you’ve guessed it – Somerset. The work, as guided by Mick, was part of a larger survey of all the Carthusian monasteries in the country, at that time funded by English Heritage. CA 151 (February 1997) provides the first detailed mention of Shapwick, in a cover story memorable in more ways than one. The cover photo is a personal favourite, with a caption that vies with the photo itself: ‘Professor Mick Aston and friends standing in Church Field at Shapwick on the site of the church abandoned in 1331. Mick has broken his leg jumping over a holy well and thus has one foot in plaster and is leaning on a stick’.

CA 151 takes its time to really explore the Shapwick project, covering its origins, ‘the main criterion for which was that from his home in Sandford… it would be in the opposite direction to his offices in Bristol’; the choice of the location, Shapwick being both a ‘planned’ and also ‘very ordinary’ village in single ownership from the start (originally the medieval abbey of Glastonbury and, even at the time of the 1990s survey, under the control of a single landlord); and the wealth of surviving materials, including a detailed survey dating to 1515, in which all the field and furlong names were recorded. The issue also reflected on the range of different approaches taken to exploring the village, and the range of experts involved too.

At the end of a long-term interdisciplinary project that had been running since 1988, CA 272 reviewed Mick’s work with Chris Gerrard at the village of Shapwick.

CA next returned to Shapwick in issue 200 (November/ December 2005), in which Time Team aficionados should also pause to enjoy the in-depth interview with Mick; in the same vein, see CA 252 (March 2011), celebrating Time Team’s 200th episode. But, more importantly, in CA 200, the cross-fertilisation of Mick’s ‘academic’ and ‘media’ careers emerges. As CA explained, ‘[Shapwick] is, at first sight, an 18th-century village that had benefited from “improvement” between 1770 and 1790; however, what was the original date of the village? Twenty five of the villagers allowed the archaeologists to dig up their front gardens, and the small 1m pits soon discovered evidence of 10th-century pottery from one end of the village to the other; clearly the village had existed since that time’. Does this approach to test-pitting sound familiar? Remember the Time Team ‘Big Digs’? This is the same approach.

Mick – sporting a plaster cast on one foot and accompanied by a four legged friend – stars in one of my personal favourite CA covers: issue 151.

Shapwick was featured in all its glory in CA one last time in issue 272 (November 2012), with a grand end-of-project review of work undertaken there since 1988. This celebrates the interdisciplinary approaches undertaken (how many projects, even today, have archaeologists, historians, geologists, and botanists all working together?), and the benefits of planning a long-term fieldwork programme from the outset, allowing time to analyse data and so adapt subsequent approaches and priorities. The article is a wonderful summary of the wealth of details within Aston and Gerrard’s 2012 book Interpreting the English Village: landscape and community at Shapwick, which deserves a place on all readers’ shelves.

CA 272 wasn’t quite the last word from Shapwick. Offering bittersweet hindsight, CA 274 (January 2013) and CA 276 (March 2013) returned to discuss how the theories and approaches explored there were informing Mick’s next project on the landscape of Winscombe parish, literally on the doorstep of his home. And CA 278 (May 2013) saw the first of what was intended to be a periodic ‘dig diary’ of work at Winscombe. Alas, as readers are aware, this was tragically cut short by Mick’s untimely death in June 2013. His obituary can be read in CA 282 (September 2013).


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 1 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 ‘DIGI345’

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