From Festivals to Garden Sheds…

6 mins read

Chris CatlingWhen, at the IFA’s Liverpool conference in April 2004, I argued for a festival of archaeology to compare with the superb festivals of literature, history, science. jazz, folk and rock music that we already have in this country, I could find not a soul in the archaeological establishment to back the idea. Then, in 2007, I joined the Current Archaeology editorial team and found in Andrew Selkirk someone who had arrived at the same conclusion and who was prepared to commit the necessary resources. As a result, the UK’s first ever Archaeology Festival was launched at the British Museum last year, and was a resounding success.

It was with nervousness that we accepted the offer from Cardiff University and the National Museum of Wales to host the 2009 Festival: would festival goers follow us out of London? And when the weekend approached, would the blizzards lead to mass ticket cancellations? We needn’t have worried: archaeologists are not deterred by a few snow flakes. The event at Cardiff was, if anything, bigger and better, and next year we are back in London at the British Museum (27-28 February; put it in your diary).
Current Archaeology has proved that the demand exists for an annual Archaeology Festival, and we have done it all without a penny of state largesse.

Grey suits the times
When Francis Pryor handed out the awards at the Archaeology Festival 2009 on 7 February, he paid a warm tribute to Current Archaeology, saying that he had read every copy since Issue 2. He also commented on the friendly relationship between Current Archaeology and British Archaeology, and reflected on the sheer richness of archaeology in the UK in being able to support two magazines; a reader could subscribe to both and not feel that there was any overlap.
Indeed, that is normally true but readers of the two magazines might have felt a distinct sense of déjà vu with the issues published in February, when both magazines came out with black and white cover photos and red lettering. All purely coincidental of course — Mike Pitts’s cover photo of Stonehenge was intended to evoke Picture Post in 1947, a particularly bleak year for the economy, for jobs and for weather; while Current Archaeology’s wartime aerial photograph of south-east London’s Shooters Hill was intended to introduce a feature on the archaeology of the Home Guard. But the fact that both magazines chose to look back to times when the UK was under siege and everyone was feeling rather grey says much about mood of our times.

Pedants’ revolt
When our stalwart sub editor Caitlin McCall sorted out everyone’s typing errors in the last issue of Current Archaeology, she had to decide whether the cover photograph showed Shooter’s Hill, Shooters’ Hill or just plain Shooters Hill. Why does it matter — and why should it be worth mentioning in an archaeology magazine? Because place-names are a key part of the historic environment and give insights into ancient topography and settlement history. In the case of Shooters Hill, we decided to follow modern cartographic practice in omitting the apostrophe — place name specialists (‘onomasts’, to give them their technical name) are divided as to whether the correct spelling is Shooters’ Hill (plural), referring to the medieval practice of archery, or Shooter’s Hill (singular) referring to one notorious highwayman.
But the pleasure that onomasts derive from an apostrophe is going to be denied them in future if they visit Birmingham. The City Council has decreed that possessive apostrophes will be banned from street signs. The rationale, according to Martin Mullaney, Chairman of the Council’s Transportation Scrutiny Committee (sounds like a non job if ever there was one) is that the monarch no longer owns Kings Heath, nor Kings Norton, and the Acock family no longer owns Acocks Green, so the possessive apostrophe is redundant.
Just for the record, the US Board of Geographic Names removed the apostrophe from its database as far back as 1890 (there are just five exceptions, including Martha’s Vineyard) and Australia did the same in 2001, arguing that apostrophes could lead to delays in the emergency services’ ability to find an address. In the UK, typically, anything goes: the Plain English Society says there simply are no rules. But the Apostrophe Protection Society (yes, there is one) is angry: Chairman John Richards said: ‘It’s setting a very bad example because teachers all over Birmingham are teaching their children punctuation. Then they see road signs with apostrophes removed.’

Measuring the king
In CA 225, the Diary noted that visitors to Hampton Court expected to see re-enactors who resemble the Humpty Dumpty version of Henry VIII rather than the monarch in his youth (described by the Venetian Ambassador of his day as ‘the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on, with an extremely fine calf to his leg … and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman ‘).
Now the Royal Armouries have come up with some precise figures for the king’s girth: a new exhibition at the Tower of London (to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry’s coronation) uses the king’s suits of armour to show that Henry was 6ft 1in in height and that in his youthful prime he had a 32in waist and a 39in chest; later in life his waist grew to 52in and his chest to 53in.
Graeme Rimer, Academic Director of the Royal Armouries, says: ‘The armour tells us unequivocally that he was pretty enormous, but there is no evidence that he was incapacitated in any way by his weight; the armour suggests that he was still riding and still active late in life.’

Working class archaeology?
Turning to the other end of the social scale, one wonders whether the publisher Routledge will struggle to find contributors to a planned book on Cultural Heritage and the Working Class. The call for papers says that the volume will ‘highlight the heritage of working people, communities and organizations’, but does anyone consider themselves to be working class any more? Politicians of all colours in the UK have adopted the phrase ‘hard working families’ to refer to what used to be known as the working class, while US politicians talk about ‘middle class citizens’, when they mean the people who, in Ronnie Corbett’s famous phrase, ‘know their place’. And any way, the whole point about being working class is that you don’t do heritage and culture. That’s for posh people, innit? Me, I’m just ordinary.
Class is not, of course, based on income, but if it were, perhaps we archaeologists are the last relic of the impecunious working class. In a survey by the student magazine Varsity, Cambridge undergraduates were asked to estimate their parents’ incomes. The resulting league table showed that la-di-dah History of Art students had the richest parents, while Archaeology students were second from bottom – only just above those studying to be teachers.

Are you sitting comfortably?
A press release that recently crossed the Diary desk was not dated 1 April, so we must assume it is not a joke. It concerns a conference on Roman latrines and cesspit toilets in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire (still time to book: it takes place in Nijmegen, in The Netherlands, on 1 and 2 May 2009). Apparently we archaeologists already know a lot about public and private toilets in the Roman cities of the Mediterranean area, but the same is not true of the north-western provinces, because our rather more primitive toilets are difficult to recognise and are often mistaken for rubbish pits. So a whole two days is to be devoted to the examination of the cess pit and the bio-archaeological and anthropological aspects of Roman toilet use, but not, delegates please note, to artefacts that might have found there way into the cess pits because, in the opinion of the organisers, this will ‘divert from the main subject’.

Secrets in the attic – and shed
Many a childhood yarn begins with the protagonist venturing into a dusty attic or ivy-covered shed to discover something that leads to a great adventure, such as a magic lamp or a mysterious message. Just occasionally real life mirrors fictional narrative. One Milton Keynes couple insulating the roof space of their newly acquired home found that the floorboards were rather special: instead of being made of pine planks, they consisted of 49 recycled railway destination boards, used in the days of steam to show where a train was heading. The sturdy boards with names like Glasgow (used on The Royal Scot) and Walsall (the Walsall Holiday Express) were scrapped at the end of the 1960s and they are now very valuable: the couple have already paid off £20,000 of the mortgage by selling some of the boards to collectors of railway memorabilia.
Then there was the case of Brenda Rowlands who discovered, after her husband’s death, a treasure trove of 1920s and 1930s children’s toys that he had kept since he was a boy, hidden in the garden shed. These included a clockwork train set, clockwork helicopter, soldiers made of lead, wooden farm and zoo animals, a wooden alphabet and games of snakes and ladders and ludo. Mrs Rowlands has donated the toys to the Aberystwyth museum.

From CA 229

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